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March 26, 2002

Hofferth Examines “Did Welfare Work?” in ASA’s Magazine, Contexts

Welfare reform has been widely accepted as a success, with the media highlighting stories of employed ex-recipients. But the reality is more complex. Many women lose their jobs, many others are poor even while working—a booming economy might easily deserve the credit. What works and what does not?

Sandra Hofferth, University of Maryland explores this issue in an article, “Did Welfare Reform Work? Implications for 2002 and Beyond” in Contexts, the newest journal of the American Sociological Association. In the article, Hofferth says that welfare policies under state waivers did what they were designed to do—they moved people off AFDC programs (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and into work. But, many recipients were unable to remain self-sufficient, and the data show that one out of three former recipients returned to welfare within two years of leaving. Moreover, families were not necessarily better off after leaving AFDC for work; more than one-half were poor at exit, and two out of five families remained poor two years later.

The research also shows that the overall level of prosperity and availability of jobs in the 1990s helped welfare reform work. The unemployment rate, which rose significantly after the events of September 11, 2001, strongly increased the rate of return to welfare. Hofferth estimates that if unemployment goes up from 3 to 9 percent in a state, twice as many women will return to welfare.

According to Hofferth, on average, workers who leave and stay off AFDC lead better lives. But while working improved the well being of women and their families, as did having a partner, neither work nor partnering alone substantially increases women’s fortunes. The great challenge in the reauthorization debates will be to focus on the highest risk and most vulnerable group of former AFDC recipients and low-income mothers. Hofferth concludes more thought needs to be given to whether this country really believes that it is cost effective and desirable to require mothers of infants to work outside the home.

Further information on Contexts can be found on its webpage at Media interested in a copy should contact Johanna Ebner, ASA Public Information Office, at (202) 383-9005 x320 or e-mail

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.