In 1966, at the age of 15, a high school student in Baltimore had her first child. That same year, she went on welfare and also started working. The welfare laws at the time allowed her to keep the first $30 she earned each month, plus a third of her total earned income. The rest of her earned income was subtracted from her welfare check. At age 16, the teenager quit school, and continued working and receiving welfare.

Twelve years after going on welfare, the woman was working in her fourth job, as a cloth spreader in a men’s clothing manufacturing firm; she earned $2.45 an hour. A year later, she found a new job, cutting linings for neckties. Her rate of pay increased to $3.30 an hour. Not until 15 years on welfare, however, when her wages increased to $4.19 an hour, was she able to leave welfare and support her three children-her oldest now 15-on her own earnings. The woman worked 13 of her 15 years on welfare.

What’s happening is that women who make wages they can survive on, move off welfare,” says Kathleen Mullan Harris, assistant professor of sociology, whose book, Teenage Mothers and Welfare Experience: Transitions Into and Out of Welfare Dependency, will be published by Temple University Press in 1996. “Women who make wages they can’t survive on, stay on welfare. Sometimes, fifty cents an hour can make the difference between staying on welfare and leaving.”

In Teenage Mothers and Welfare Experience, Harris relates the woman’s story above. However, Harris’ book mostly provides statistical portraits-Harris’ analysis of data that researchers at the University of Pennsylvania collected as part of the Baltimore Study. In the late 1960s, teenage women seeking prenatal services from a community hospital in Baltimore were invited to enroll in this study, which followed 288 women for 20 years.

Participants were all under the age of 18, pregnant for the first time, and the majority were unmarried,” says Harris. “Nearly all the women in the sample were black and grew up in the city in very poor families, many of which were on public assistance when the teenager first became pregnant.”

Researchers have shown that the Baltimore women are similar in socioeconomic characteristics to black mothers of similar ages, who were teenagers living in metropolitan areas at the time of their first birth, in several national data sets. The Baltimore study can be considered representative of urban black teenage mothers who became pregnant in the late 1960s.

Information from each woman was collected at six points. Much of the information used for Harris’ analysis was collected during the fifth interview, 17 years after the woman gave birth to her first child. In this interview, the woman reconstructed her life history, including residential, marital and welfare changes and childbearing, schooling and occupational events that had taken place since the birth of the child.

The popular image is that if you’re a teenage mother and you live in the inner city and you’re black, that you’ll probably be on welfare throughout the kid’s life,” says Harris. “I found that wasn’t the case.” In one measure, Harris looked at total, cumulative years of welfare receipt-the welfare receipt may not have been continuous. Of the 288 women who participated in the study, 30 percent did not ever receive welfare. Twenty-three percent of the women received welfare for a period of one or two years. Thus, over 50 percent of the women either did not receive welfare or received it for a short period of time. Twenty-four percent of women received welfare for three to eight years. Only twenty-three percent of women were on welfare for nine or more years.

Harris also looked at the duration of individual periods of welfare receipt. Harris found that out of those women who received welfare, nearly 50 percent had a first stay on welfare which lasted for two years or less. Fifty percent of those who left welfare went back. For 50 percent of those who went back, the return stay on welfare lasted for two years or less. Thus, for many women, initial and return periods of welfare receipt were relatively brief.

On the other hand, some women experienced longer stays on welfare. For 25 percent of the women who experienced welfare receipt, the initial stay on welfare lasted more than 10 years. For 10 percent of those who received welfare, the initial stay on welfare lasted more than 17 years.

Harris’ findings also expose as a myth the popular idea that women on welfare do not work. Except for the first two years following the first birth, in any given year of the study, about 50 percent of the women who were receiving welfare were also working.

That’s one of my most important findings,” says Harris. Before Harris’ study, researchers had found that about 6 percent of women work while on welfare. That 6 percent includes only women who report their work income on census surveys or to their welfare case worker, says Harris. The current welfare system encourages women not to report work income to welfare administration or on surveys: the Family Support Act, put into effect by Congress in 1988, stipulates that for every dollar a woman earns, she loses a dollar in welfare benefits. If a woman earns enough that she no longer qualifies for welfare (depending on the state, the threshold for welfare eligibility ranges from 50 percent to 75 percent of the poverty level), she loses Medicaid benefits as well.

One Woman's Answer

Before she began working full time as a teacher’s assistant for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Head Start program, Angela Leak was on and off welfare for 14 years. Volunteer work helped her to move herself and her four children off of public assistance. “I did a lot of volunteer work for the health department,” Leak says. “I was on some advisory boards for them. I did volunteer work for the housing authority, for the Community Watch program, and for Planned Parenthood.

Volunteer work boosts things up,” Leak explains. “It gives you the perception that you can keep on going, that even though things seem down, that it can be better. I saw that some of the people I worked with on the advisory board were maybe in a better situation, but they were no different than I was. I really worked hard, trying to make something of myself. Volunteer work built up my self esteem, and that kind of pushed me over the edge where I thought, well, I can do it. And I did it.”

In December, Leak is starting classes with Durham Technical Community College’s College Transfer program. She plans to earn a Bachelor’s degree in social work.

—Dottie Horn

In the Baltimore study, interviewers asked only whether a woman worked in a given year. Because the women were not asked to reveal the amount of their work income, Harris believes her study was able to pick up work activity that is often not reported to government agencies.

The types of unreported work that they’re doing-this comes from ethnographic studies, not from my research-are bartending, babysitting, working as a clerk, even prostitution and selling drugs, just about anything, because they just can’t make it on welfare income alone,” says Harris. In North Carolina, a woman with two children receives, along with Medicaid for herself and her family, $272 a month in welfare benefits.

Harris’ research also discredits the popular idea that long periods of welfare receipt encourage women to have a dependent mentality that rejects the mainstream value placed on work. On the contrary, Harris found that the longer a woman was on welfare, the more likely she was to work. Out of those women on welfare for one to two years, 42 percent worked at some point while on welfare. Out of those who were on welfare for three to eight years, 67 percent worked at some point while on welfare. Out of those who were on welfare for nine or more years, 91 percent worked at some time while on welfare. “The tremendous amount of work activity displayed by the Baltimore mothers illustrates that welfare mothers are motivated to work,” says Harris.

Harris tried to determine what life events enabled the Baltimore women to leave welfare. About one-third of the women who received welfare left when they found a job. Approximately another third continued receiving welfare when they began working, but after working for a period of time, were able to leave welfare. Presumably, says Harris, the job experience they gained eventually allowed them to command a higher wage or, as their children became older or as a new employment opportunity opened up, they became able to work more hours per week, enabling them to move off welfare. For another third of the women, leaving welfare was associated with events unrelated to work, most often marriage or cohabitation, which allowed 22 percent of all women who received welfare to leave.

Harris wanted to find out what qualities distinguish those women who are able to leave welfare once they start working from those who remain on welfare when they begin working. One difference Harris found was that, at the time of entry into the labor force, 54 percent of those who left welfare when they began working had graduated from high school, compared to 33 percent of those who remained on welfare when they began working. “Women with better job characteristics, such as a high school education, take the jobs and they’re home free,” explains Harris.

Harris’ research has helped to show that in the past, policy makers in Washington were asking the wrong questions. “They shouldn’t have been asking, Why don’t welfare mothers work,” says Harris. “They should have been asking, How come the work these women do does not help them get off of welfare and get out of poverty.” Now, the work of Harris and other researchers is reaching Washington, and the debate is shifting. “It’s now being debated, How can we supplement the types of low-wage jobs that welfare mothers work, supplement them by providing medical benefits, free child care, or education or training, to help women get on their feet and get off welfare,” says Harris.

Dottie Horn was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.