Table of Contents
Send a Letter
Magazine Staff
Back Issues:
Editors's Notes
Chicago Journal
Books by Alumni

Class News


For the Record
Center Stage
Alumni Gateway
UofC Homepage

Waldo E. Johnson Jr., PhD’93, an assistant professor in the SSA, says that while they tend to be dismissed as “deadbeat dads” or as violent and abusive, he believes that social-science research has not drawn a fair and full portrait of these men. A major flaw in the new welfare law, he notes, is that fathers aren’t even mentioned in it, except with respect to paternity tests and child support. The fathers, he says, may be as low-skilled and as much in need of job training as the mothers.

“It’s important to recognize that when we’re trying to improve the lives of women and children, if we’re ignoring other people in their lives, then we’re not getting the full picture,” says Johnson. “Fathers are involved. It’s a question of whether we decide to acknowledge them and bring them into the picture.”

Johnson hopes to speed this process as one of ten investigators in the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, the first national longitudinal study of its kind. The four-year, 20-city study will follow 4,700 African-American, white, and Latino families—including 3,600 unwed couples and 1,100 married couples—to assess the conditions and capabilities of new, unwed parents, especially fathers; the nature of the couples’ relationships; how public policies affect their behavior and living arrangements; and the long-term consequences of the new welfare rules.

Johnson’s segment of the study—backed in part by the Ford Foundation—hones in on how unmarried, low-income, nonresident fathers become involved with their children. Initial findings from interviews conducted in Austin, Texas, and Oakland, California, says Johnson, show that more than 90 percent of the nonresident fathers were involved with the mothers during pregnancy and provided financial and other forms of assistance, such as helping out with chores and accompanying the mothers to prenatal-care visits.

The relationships of these men with their children, he says, run the gamut from fathers who provide both financial and emotional support to those whose involvement is virtually nonexistent, adding that some who appear unconnected are actually paying child support outside the formal system. Johnson plans to conduct more in-depth discussions with a group of men interviewed in a Chicago pilot study last year to better understand the complex individual and structural situations that help and hinder their paternal involvement.

While their colleagues evaluate specific aspects of the new welfare system, other U of C scholars are grappling with the myriad social factors that foster inequality and lead to the need for government aid in the first place.

As director of the Joint Center for Poverty Research, Susan Mayer helps affiliated scholars inject fresh, apolitical, social-science research into debates on topics from teen pregnancy to public housing to health care. The center’s working papers series includes nearly 40 articles on welfare reform—more than on any other topic. The center has sponsored conferences on what is likely to happen to the poor if the economy goes into recession, on the labor market for low-skilled workers, and on how the changes in welfare will affect family functioning. In September 1999, the center will sponsor a Washington, D.C., conference on how states can use economic incentives to improve the lives of low-income families and children.


In her own work, Mayer says she is “trying to take a longer view to get at some of the more basic questions that would inform any welfare program. I’m stepping back from the programs themselves and looking at how income matters to children’s life chances.”

Mayer’s What Money Can’t Buy: How Parental Income Influences Children’s Outcomes (Harvard, 1998) concludes that additional income makes the biggest impact when it can prevent hunger or homelessness or buy medical care, but that its rewards drop dramatically after the basic necessities have been met. This suggests, she explains, that relative rather than absolute income has a greater effect on children’s well-being—a hypothesis she plans to test as part of a two-year, $200,000 research grant from the Russell Sage Foundation. And with Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, she’s wrapping up a book, Did We Lose the War on Poverty?, which rethinks standard measures of material and physical well-being and challenges the idea that the major social-welfare programs of the past 30 years were failures.

From another big-picture perspective, nothing short of a revolution in the nation’s social-welfare policy will do for James Heckman, the Henry Schultz distinguished service professor in economics, the Harris School, and the College. He says that policymakers should adopt a “life-cycle perspective” that considers the role of all intervention policies—training programs, school-based programs, school reform, and early childhood initiatives—together, not in isolation.

In “Education and Job Training Myths,” published in the Spring 1999 issue of The Public Interest, Heckman argues further that welfare policies will not be successful until “politicians and the public recognize the importance of informal sources of learning, the cumulative character of learning, and the value of incentives in formal education.” After six years studying how people develop skills, Heckman has taken the stand that wage subsidies, such as the earned income tax credit, are the most effective support for underemployed adults. Funds now earmarked for welfare-to-work programs, he says, should instead be invested in infants and young children.

“If and when the bottom drops out of the market, we will be back to where we started, with a population that is not that employable,” says Heckman. “The reform efforts got caught up in specific programs, but there can be an enormously high gain in looking at how to improve the problems over the long term. We’ve got to get to the problems when they are easier to solve.”

Judging from the questions raised by these Chicago researchers, the latest welfare reform law does indeed need to be reformed. And if the next overhaul is done on their terms, the law will be changed only after taking an even harder look at the underlying causes and consequences of poverty, at how the law can be applied fairly and equally, and at the special needs of the working mothers, at-risk children, and estranged fathers who are arguably stuck more in the low-wage workforce than on welfare.

<< Previous
Table of Contents | Send a Letter | Staff | Editor's Notes | Letters | Investigations | Journal | Class News | Books | Deaths