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Teens of Working Moms Are Less Likely to Commit Minor Crimes

A working paper examines how welfare reform has affected the frequency of minor offense arrests among teenagers.

Welfare reform advocates have long argued that creating labor requirements for cash assistance would incentivize low-skilled workers to seek employment.

Those “mainstreamers” were vindicated again this month after the National Bureau of Economic Research published findings that suggest welfare reform programs of the late 1990s did just that, and more: They also had a hand in reducing the number of minor crime arrests for teenagers.

Researchers from the University of Chicago, Rider University, Rutgers University, and Bentley University analyzed data collected from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The data provided researchers with the number of arrests by age and gender, allowing them to aggregate data about the cohorts they studied (males and females ages 10–14 and 15–17) and track correlations between maternal employment and youth arrests based on federal welfare policy changes (like the implementation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF) and the dates they were implemented at the state level.

Using a mathematical model to analyze the Federal Bureau of Investigation and DOJ data, the researchers related the change over time in number of arrests to changes in welfare reform; the model factors in a 12-month lag between policy implementation and impact on the population.

The findings, they say in the report, provide “robust evidence” that welfare reforms from the late ’90s led to a decrease in youth arrests for minor crimes, like disorderly conduct and curfew and liquor laws, by 7 to 9 percent. The causality became more statistically significant and “consistent” the older the teenagers were, the researchers write.

They did not find the same was true for arrests for serious crimes, like vandalism or violent crime. The researchers note that the finding wasn’t surprising, given that welfare reform is not likely to provide the kind of material changes necessary to dramatically reduce incidences of violent crime.

And, despite initial predictions, researchers found that arrest rates were similar between males and females, countering the assumption that maternal employment changes young girls’ expectations “about welfare reliance as an option for themselves in the future.”

“[The results] provide some support for the widely-embraced argument that welfare reform would discourage undesirable social behavior, not only of mothers, but also of the next generation,” the researchers conclude.