Final Report on a Comprehensive Program for Young Mothers in Poverty and Their Children
New Chance, a national research and demonstration program that operated between 1989 and 1992, was developed in a policy context marked by intense concern about teenage childbearing. That concern reflected the public’s distress about three developments: the dramatic increase in the rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing over the past three decades, the long-term welfare costs incurred by young, poor women who become mothers, and the negative life prospects faced by their children. Little was known, however, about what kinds of programs and policies could help young mothers on welfare attain economic independence and could foster their children’s development as well.
The recent enactment of a federal welfare law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, is likely to alter the welfare policy environment in several important respects. For one thing, it has the potential to sever the connection between early childbearing and high expenditures for public assistance by imposing time limits on the use of federal funds to support cash grants to most needy families, including those headed by mothers age 19 (or age 18, if they are not enrolled in school) and older. For another, it provides financial incentives to states that reduce their rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Against this changed backdrop, the New Chance Demonstration provides findings—about the behavior of young mothers who are receiving welfare, the problems they face, and their efforts to move toward self-sufficiency—that are highly relevant to the new welfare scenario. The evidence suggests that states will continue to confront substantial challenges in helping young mothers find jobs and move off welfare before the time limits on their receipt of aid have been reached.
The New Chance Demonstration was a rare and important opportunity to test the value of comprehensive services in assisting a disadvantaged group of families headed by young mothers who had first given birth as teenagers, who had dropped out of high school, and who were receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The program, which operated in 16 locations (or “sites”) in 10 states across the country, sought to help the young mothers acquire educational and vocational credentials and skills so that they could secure jobs offering opportunities for advancement and could thereby reduce, and eventually eliminate, their use of welfare. It also sought to motivate and assist participants in postponing additional childbearing and to help them become better parents. Finally, New Chance was explicitly “two-generational” in its approach, seeking to enhance the cognitive abilities, health, and socioemotional well-being of enrollees’ children. The program was, for the most part, voluntary; that is, young women were generally not required to attend in order to receive public assistance. Instead, most joined it because they wanted to earn their General Educational Development (GED, or high school equivalency) certificates and the program offered free child care to enable them to participate.
The program model was spelled out in guidelines developed in consultation with academicians, program operators, and other experts. The experts’ recommendations reflected the prevailing view that earlier programs with a limited focus (for example, perinatal health care or education) had been largely inadequate and that a comprehensive intervention was needed to respond to the complex problems that young mothers commonly face. Accordingly, the model called for participants to receive a wide array of services addressing the young women’s multiple roles and needs as students, prospective employees, mothers, family members, and partners. The services included instruction in basic academic skills and in subjects covered on the GED test, career exposure and employability development classes, occupational skills training, work experience, job placement assistance, health and family planning classes and services, parenting workshops, and “life skills” classes on communication and decision-making skills. These components were intended to reinforce and complement one another; together they were to convey a consistent set of messages about education, work, childrearing, and personal empowerment.
The program model and demonstration were developed by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that develops and studies initiatives to improve the well-being and self-sufficiency of poor people. MDRC designed and carried out the research agenda, provided initial training and ongoing technical assistance to the demonstration sites, helped them secure modest amounts of supplemental funding, and monitored their compliance with the program model and the research.
To evaluate the program’s effectiveness, young women who applied and were determined to be eligible for New Chance were randomly assigned to one of two groups: the experimental group, whose members could enroll in the program, or the control group, whose members could not join New Chance but could receive other services available in their communities. To ascertain both short- and longer-term program effects, comparable information was collected from each member of both groups through in-home survey interviews conducted approximately 1½ and 3½ years after the individual had been randomly assigned. The measured average differences between the two groups’ outcomes over time (such as their differences in rates of GED attainment, employment, or subsequent childbearing) and between the outcomes for their children are the observed results (or impacts) of New Chance. This, the final report on the New Chance program and its impacts, examines the trajectories of 2,079 young mothers who responded to the 3½-year survey.
The Impact Findings in Brief
At the time of the 3½-year interview, the young women were, on average 22.4 years old, and most had children who were still toddlers. Contrary to the common stereotype of these young mothers as immobilized by—or content with—their circumstances, the evaluation found that over the 3½-year follow-up period the young women in the research sample—experimental and control group members alike—were moving forward in many ways. At baseline (that is, random assignment), fewer than 10 percent of sample members had a high school diploma or a GED; by the 3½-year point, almost half the sample had earned one of these credentials. Sixty-three percent of sample members did not work at all during the year prior to random assignment; in contrast, over half were employed at some point during the 12 months before the 3½-year interviews, and the large majority of those who worked did so for 30 hours a week or more. These rates of employment are surprisingly high given the young age of the mothers and the fact that most had very young children. Over the follow-up period, the proportion of sample members receiving AFDC dropped considerably (although the majority were still on the rolls at the 3½-year interview), the proportion of women who used a reliable method of birth control rose steadily, and fewer women were at risk of depression. Nevertheless, the large majority remained poor and on welfare after 3½ years.
Although experimental group members received more varied services in greater quantity than did their control group counterparts and received them sooner, the differential was not large, especially with regard to education- and employment-related services. This is partly because during the period of the demonstration many education and training programs were available in the New Chance communities, and members of the control group participated in these in unexpectedly high numbers. At the same time, because of absenteeism and early departures from the program, members of the experimental group received on average a much lower intensity and duration of services than had been anticipated, and many never participated in skills training, work experience, or job search—the activities in the program model most closely related to employment.
The New Chance evaluation is not, therefore, a test of extensive services compared with no services or minimal ones. Rather, the evaluation measures the effectiveness of a particular mix and level of services that were relatively easy for those in the experimental group to obtain against another mix and level of services that individuals in the control group could secure only if they displayed somewhat greater initiative.
The findings indicate that while experimental and control group members both advanced in many ways, experimental group members did not advance further than control group members in most respects. New Chance did boost participants’ levels of GED receipt above those of the control group. The added services provided by the program, however, did not help participants secure skills training credentials, get and maintain employment, or reduce their rates of welfare receipt or subsequent childbearing relative to outcomes for control group members. The program did not improve their children’s preschool readiness scores, and it had unexpected small but negative effects on participants’ emotional well-being and their ratings of their children’s behavior.
These results are puzzling, for MDRC observers judged all the sites to offer some high-quality services, and the large majority of young women in the experimental group said that they liked the program and benefited from it. It is likely that many factors, sometimes working in combination, account for the absence of impacts and for unanticipated impacts; different explanations may hold for different outcome areas. The possible factors include the slender differential in service receipt between experimental and control group members, the low absolute amount of services received by those in the experimental group, the possibility that some direct program effects produced unanticipated side-effects, and constraints on the magnitude of impacts imposed by larger social and environmental forces. It may also be that the program model itself was inappropriate for many young women.
These findings, unfortunately, are consistent with the results of other evaluations of programs serving young mothers on welfare who do not have a high school diploma or a GED, and the unsuccessful records of these programs highlight the importance of continuing to seek effective ways to assist these young women in improving their lives. But the impact results do not mean that the services New Chance provided (and that control group members received on their own) were of no value. Additional analyses were conducted to estimate the effects of service receipt for experimental and control group members together. While less definitive than the analyses undergirding the impact estimates, the results suggest that young women who received more than 18 weeks of education were far more likely to earn GEDs than those who did not and that young women who received skills training and attended college earned higher wages than their counterparts who did not receive postsecondary education or training. These findings held true even after other differences between those who received more or fewer weeks of education, and those who attended training or college and those who did not, were controlled statistically.
Thus, the findings indicate that the combination and quantity of services that New Chance participants received, on average, did not result in improved outcomes vis-à-vis those achieved by control group members. But they also suggest that receiving adequate amounts of specific kinds of services can make a difference in the mothers’ lives—a finding of considerable importance to program operators and policy makers.
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