The Pursuit of Happiness : How Working Mothers Feel After Welfare Reform
Senior Lecturer in Economics
In the decade since President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill of 1996, the evidence indicates that the new law reduced welfare rolls and put more single mothers into the work force. But has it made them happier?
No one has really asked until now. But in a working paper titled “The Happiness of Single Mothers After Welfare Reform,” John Ifcher, senior lecturer in the SCU Economics Department, tackles the question.
“From the perspective of government, welfare reform has been a success,” Ifcher says. “But what about the mothers themselves? Would it be fair to solve the problems of the system at the expense of less-educated, single working mothers?”
Ifcher’s tentative conclusion, based on a close reading of two separate but widely respected surveys of subjective well-being, is that the percentage of single mothers who say they’re happy has increased a bit since welfare reform became law.
“The numbers move, but this seems to be a break,” Ifcher contends. “You can clearly rule out that they’re worse off, and while we’re not finished totally, the indicators are that they are happier on average.”
His research draws on two long-standing surveys that measure self-judged well-being: the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been conducted nearly every two years since 1972, and the World Values Survey (WVS), which has been taken on a regular basis since 1985.
Because neither survey specifically identifies welfare mothers, Ifcher uses the figures for single mothers with a high school education or less — that is, the women who fit the demographic most affected by the welfare reform law. He says, and most colleagues so far have agreed, that this is an acceptable proxy.
Happiness is measured by the number of respondents who describe themselves as being either “very happy” or the next level down, “pretty happy” in the GSS or “quite happy” in the WVS. In the GSS, 78 percent of less-educated single mothers put themselves in those categories, up from 75 percent, and in the WVS the figure is 96 percent, up from 82 percent.
“It was striking that an increase was found in two high-quality nationally representative surveys that are unrelated to each other,” Ifcher notes. And, he says, there was no increase in reported well-being among members of a comparison group — less-educated single women without children — in the WVS and GSS over the same time period, thus bolstering the theory that welfare reform and a change in employment status increased happiness.
In some respects, that finding contradicts standard economic theory, which assumes that hours worked reduce well-being. It also seems to go against the idea that quality of life would suffer as working single mothers struggle to deal with childcare, manage their busy schedules, and get adequate sleep.
On the other hand, Ifcher observes, surveys have generally shown that people are happier when they’re working, and that seems to have been the case here.
In combination with other surveys showing that welfare reform has reduced welfare rolls without harming the financial status of the mothers affected, Ifcher’s work would seem to back up the contention that welfare reform was a success. But, as he puts it, there’s another avenue to explore:
“This still leaves one very important question unanswered: the impact of these policies on children,” he says.