In the mid-1980s, three developments long in the making — a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing, the high cost of providing welfare to young poor women who become mothers, and the difficulties faced by their children — became a focus of concern among policymakers and the public alike. Little was known at the time about how to help young mothers receiving welfare attain economic self-sufficiency or how to foster their children’s development. Designed and evaluated by MDRC, New Chance was a national demonstration project that tested a comprehensive approach to realizing these objectives. Operated between 1989 and 1992 in sites around the country, the program gave young welfare mothers access to an array of education, employment, and family services to increase their employability, improve their parenting, and promote their children’s well-being. While the New Chance approach differs considerably from that used in most large-scale welfare-to-work programs implemented since the 1990s, MDRC’s rigorous study of it offers valuable insights into the complexity and potential of young lives that begin in poverty.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

New Chance was targeted at 16- to 22-year-old mothers who had first given birth as teenagers, had dropped out of high school, and were receiving cash welfare assistance. Most enrolled in the program voluntarily, though some were referred by welfare-to-work programs. Enrollees were offered:

  • Basic academic instruction
  • Preparation for the General Educational Development (GED) test
  • Career exposure and employability development classes
  • Occupational skills training
  • Work experiences
  • Job placement assistance
  • Health and family planning classes and services
  • Parenting workshops
  • Instruction in communication and decision-making

The specific aims of the program were:

  • To help participants acquire education and vocational credentials and skills that would allow them to find jobs and reduce or eliminate their reliance on welfare
  • To motivate and assist participants in postponing further childbearing and to help them become better parents
  • To improve the health and well-being of participants’ children using a “two-generation” approach

New Chance was implemented in a variety of institutional contexts, mostly community service organizations. MDRC provided the sites with initial training and ongoing technical assistance, helped them secure supplemental funding, and monitored their adherence to the program model and research design.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The demonstration examined both the program’s implementation and its effects on young mothers and their families. The analysis of its effects included more than 2,000 women in the target population. Each one was randomly assigned to one of two groups: the New Chance group, whose members were eligible for the program’s services, or the control group, whose members could not join New Chance but could receive other services in the community. Because mothers were assigned to one or the other group at random, the two groups did not differ at the outset of the study. Therefore, any differences between them that emerged during the follow-up period can be attributed to the program.

New Chance was operated in 16 sites in 10 states:

  • Allentown, Pennsylvania
  • Bronx, New York
  • Chicago Heights, Illinois
  • Chula Vista, California
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Harlem, New York
  • Inglewood, California
  • Jacksonville, Florida
  • Lexington, Kentucky
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Salem, Oregon
  • San Jose, California

The analysis of New Chance’s effects on families are based on in-person interviews with the mothers 18 months and 42 months after random assignment. The survey asked about outcomes such as GED attainment, employment status, earnings, childrearing, and use of contraception.

Conducted in collaboration with researchers outside MDRC, the New Chance Observational Study closely examined the parental behavior of 290 mothers in the evaluation by directly observing their interactions with their children. This part of the study aimed to describe parenting in both research groups, to assess New Chance’s effects on parenting by comparing observations of the two groups, to explore the role of parenting in shaping children’s outcomes, and to assess the added research benefits of measuring parenting using direct observations in addition to survey interviews.