When two New York Democrats, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Rep. Thomas J. Downey, helped win passage of the 1988 law mandating education and job training for welfare parents, they raised hopes that a significant portion of the nation's 3.3 million welfare mothers would escape poverty.
But now that the states are starting the training programs, a new study by Child Trends, a nonprofit Washington think tank that focuses on children's issues and statistics, concluded that many of these women have such tremendous educational, emotional and intellectual deficits that they will never attain jobs paying enough to move them out of poverty.
They may work and leave the welfare rolls, the study said, but a college education is needed for most good jobs today, so the jobs the trainees get are likely to be among society's lowest-paying.
"Moving many women from welfare poor to working poor may seem like good news for taxpayers, but it does not portend major positive changes in the lives of the women themselves or in the life prospects of their children," the study said.
Nicholas Zill, executive director of Child Trends, said many states limit a person's training period to no more than two years, but "this is a larger problem than can be solved by two years of training."
"Don't expect miracles," he said.
But Zill noted one optimistic finding: that the program could be of great help to those whose academic skills, education and work experience were not in the top quarter among welfare mothers but in the second quarter.
Those in the top quarter probably possess enough skills, education and experience to succeed on their own without much help, while prospects for those in the bottom half are cloudy, he said. The second quarter is not weighed down by excessive deficits but needs help to bring its job readiness up to par.
Zill also said the new program should produce better results than experiments of the 1980s because it has a heavier educational component and does not focus simply on "job search."
The study, based on the results of numerous surveys, found that typical welfare mothers have poor education, low IQs, little work experience, low self-esteem, and suffer from depression more than average. It found that non-welfare mothers with similar characteristics usually could only find low-paying service jobs insufficient to move them out of poverty.
About nine-tenths of the adults receiving welfare under the federal-state Aid to Families with Dependent Children program are women, the vast majority without husbands in the home.
The study found that about half the welfare mothers never had been married to the child's father, triple the rate for poor mothers not on welfare. Most others are divorced or separated. About 40 percent of all welfare mothers are black, 16 percent Hispanic.
Slightly more than half the welfare mothers have finished high school or received equivalency degrees, compared with 88 percent of non-poor mothers.
The average welfare mother aged 22 to 30 has an IQ of 86, compared to a nationwide average of 100 for all women in the same age range, the study found, noting, "Most would not qualify for . . . the U.S. Armed Forces."
Downey, the bill's House sponsor, said in an interview that he was always aware that "this is a very, very hard population to work with" and "I never claimed the bill would work miracles."
But he said that even a modest-paying job has a substantial "intangible benefit. There is dignity in having a job to help yourself and your family, even if you have an unskilled job."
Moreover, he said, the 1988 law and later legislation -- recognizing that many of the jobs would be low-paying -- contained features to help supplement earnings: stronger rules to obtain child-support payments from the absent father, and a major increase in the income-subsidy that the Treasury pays to parents who work but earn low incomes, called the Earned Income Tax Credit.
"What Child Trends is telling us is exactly what we would expect to find and it is precisely because of this pattern that we provided in the Family Support Act of 1988 that the education and training programs would be targeted on the youngest mothers with the most difficulties," Moynihan said. "What we knew then and believe now is that success comes slowly with this group, but every success is a life saved."