Ask Mary Patino about the advantages of work over welfare and she offers an upbeat answer.
"My life is much different," says Ms. Patino, a food-service worker at a wholesale club in San Jose, Calif. "When I was on aid, it was stress worrying about having enough money to pay the rent and give my daughters what they need. Now I have a steady income."
But ask if her children are better off, and she hedges. "On the financial part, yes," she says. "But as a mom, I know they need a lot more attention and time."
As welfare reform has propelled millions of single mothers like Patino into the workforce since 1996, questions about its effects on families have loomed large. Now a report released today offers the first national look at how toddlers and preschoolers have fared under the new system.
The good news is that the demand that welfare recipients find jobs has boosted family income. But the stubborn counterpoint is that the modest economic gains have not discernably improved families' living conditions or the daily lives of young children.
It's a sign that, while the welfare-to-work law has enjoyed bipartisan support and helped cut welfare rolls in half since 1996, lingering questions remain about its effect on children.
In the study, mothers' earnings averaged less than $13,000 a year, keeping most families below the poverty line.
Since government assistance diminishes as their job income rises, some mothers still do not have enough money to pay the rent. One-fifth of all mothers in the study had to cut the size of meals they serve their children because they lack cash to buy more food. Two in every 5 women also reported significant levels of emotional depression.
Researchers followed more than 700 single mothers for up to four years after they entered welfare-to-work programs in California, Florida, and Connecticut. Where other welfare studies have focused on elementary school children and high school students, this is the first comprehensive look at the impact on young children, who are most affected by their mothers' work.
The report, a collaboration by scholars at several universities, comes as the welfare system awaits reauthorization by Congress. President Bush has proposed expanding the hours that welfare recipients must spend in "work activities," which can include job training, to 40 hours per week. Currently, the requirement is 30 hours or 20 for those with children under five.
The proposal is controversial, touching on a central debate about welfare reform: whether children will be shortchanged by having parents out of the home more often.
Among the report's encouraging findings, the children who attended child-care centers one-third of those studied show better literacy skills than those who are cared for in other arrangements. Those enrolled in higher-quality centers made even greater progress.
"We do find a positive effect from child-care centers," says Susanna Loeb of Stanford University, a director of the project. "That's the most exciting part of the study."
Yet she is disappointed that children did not make greater gains in cognitive development.
Researchers see few improvements in parenting practices, such as parents reading to children. Most mothers say they spend less time with their young children because they work.
Although the home environment did not deteriorate when mothers went to work, neither did it improve, researchers found.
Professor Loeb emphasizes the need to establish child-care centers responsive to the kinds of work these mothers do. Many women in the survey work irregular hours, evenings, and weekends. Finding child-care centers that are flexible enough to accommodate their work schedules is difficult.
Patino, who took part in the study, faced child-care problems for her youngest daughter. Even now, her rotating work schedule makes it hard to arrange daycare.
Similarly, another participant, Deserie Varela of San Francisco, worried that her youngest child was spending 10 hours a day in child-care while she worked as a home-care aide. Her three children, she says, "really didn't like the fact that I was gone all day. In the beginning, they were trying to mess up a little bit in school. I had to straighten that out."
Because of health problems and the need to find better housing, Ms. Varela had to quit her job after two years and return to welfare. "It felt good to work, and I liked what I was doing," she explains. "But at that time it was just too hard." Her 45-minute commute each way on public transportation was difficult. She also needs to find a new apartment by April 27. After that, she hopes to return to work.
Bruce Fuller, a study director from the University of California, Berkeley, calls the report a "sobering warning that simply requiring single mothers to work more in very low-wage jobs is not likely to boost the well-being of young children. We can't put all our eggs into forcing women to work more hours in low-wage jobs, if the policy goal is to improve young kids' environments."
President Bush's answer to that challenge is to fund new efforts to promote higher marriage rates since poverty rates are highest for single-parent families.
Aside from the political controversy over that proposal, such a result may be difficult to achieve. As Connecticut women in the study began working more, their newfound financial self-reliance apparently had a wider impact: They married less often than those who faced less pressure to work, researchers noted.
Fuller also challenges Bush's proposal to double the work requirements for mothers with very young children. "He doesn't want to spend any more money on child care. Our findings suggest that an investment in quality child-care centers would help accomplish the goal of improving child well-being."
Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is encouraged by the report's general absence of alarming findings. "You have a group of people [conducting this study] who are no friends of welfare reform, and they're really hard put to find any substantial increase in hardship. Theirs is not the only study that comes to that conclusion."
As for Bush's plan for 40 hours of work per week, Mr. Besharov says flatly, "It's not going to happen. Either Congress won't pass it, or, if it does, the states won't implement it. That's because there are so many loopholes. The federal government has no ability to impose these kinds of work requirements."
Whatever lawmakers decide, Varela has a wish list: "To have a really good-paying job, and a nice home, so that my kids would not have to be raised around here [in San Francisco public housing]."
Patino's wish is short: "A raise," she says simply. Then, in comments that would warm the hearts of policymakers, she adds, "Now that we're off aid and out of that system, we're leading a much happier life. The path where we're going is a much brighter one. Children deserve a lot more than what being on aid gives them."