(March 2001) Welfare reform was enacted in August 1996 through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and is up for reauthorization in 2002. With that date nearing, and with a new administration, many analysts are closely scrutinizing the law’s impact.

PRWORA was designed in part to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. This policy emphasis stemmed from research indicating that children born out-of-wedlock are more likely to face problems such as poverty, teen parenthood, and low educational attainment, and from the steady growth in the percentage of births to unmarried women. PRWORA was expected to reverse this trend.

Nationally, the percentage of births to unmarried women has leveled off after a rapid rate of increase since the 1960s (see figure), but it has not declined since welfare reform began in 1996, according to research by the National Center for Health Statistics. This is due in part to the increasing proportion of unmarried women of childbearing age, especially those ages 18 to 29, between 1996 and 1998. Women ages 18 to 29 have the highest birth rates, and an increasing number of women in this age group are postponing marriage.

Percent of Births to Unmarried Women, 1960 to 1999

Source: Stephanie J. Ventura and Christine A. Bachrach, ‘Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940-99,’ National Vital Statistics Reports 48, no. 16 (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2000).

At the state level, however, it is more difficult to discern what effect welfare reform has had in reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. The law established annual numerical goals for states that could demonstrate a reduction in out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and created monetary bonuses for states that demonstrated a net decrease in out-of-wedlock births. Up to five states can be awarded a $20 million bonus each year for showing the largest reduction in the proportion of out-of-wedlock births to total births; to qualify, though, a state must show that its abortion rate is less than it was in 1995. In 1999, Alabama, California, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Michigan each received a $20 million bonus for reducing the percentage of births to unmarried women. In 2000, Alabama, Arizona, the District of Columbia, Illinois, and Michigan were the recipients.

Some of the decreases are so small — carried out to the third decimal point — that one could easily argue they represent a leveling off or a holding pattern for six of the seven awardees. Only the District of Columbia seems to have shown some consistent decrease since 1994/1995.

Demonstrating the role of welfare reform in bringing about these decreases is difficult. Because PRWORA was enacted in 1996, it is common to look at trends after that time. However, many states restricted benefits prior to 1996, making it difficult to measure the impact of this single piece of legislation.

Determining which approaches are most effective at reducing the incidence of nonmarital pregnancies is also complex. All of the winning states and the District of Columbia have a range of teen pregnancy prevention policies and programs. These include family planning services for teens, school-based abstinence education, sexually transmitted infection and HIV education in public schools (except Massachusetts), contraceptive education in public schools, and media campaigns.

Teen pregnancies, though, do not account for all nonmarital births. Few states have prevention policies and programs aimed at unmarried adults. This is significant since cohabitation rates are rising and the proportion of out-of-wedlock births to cohabiting women is increasing.

When reviewing welfare reform before re-authorization, Congress will ask: Is welfare reform really having an impact on family formation and out-of-wedlock pregnancies? Are some strategies better than others? Do different target groups need different strategies? These are difficult and complex questions to answer.

Kerri Rivers is a research associate at the Population Reference Bureau.

Related Reading

Heather Boonstra, “Welfare Law and the Drive To Reduce ‘Illegitimacy,'” The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy 3, no. 6 (2000).

Greg Duncan and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, “Income Effects Across the Lifespan: Integration and Interpretation,” in Consequences of Growing Up Poor, edited by G.J. Duncan and J. Brooks-Gunn (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997).

Ariel Halpern, Poverty Among Children Born Outside of Marriage: Preliminary Findings from the National Survey of America’s Families (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 1999).

John Hutchins, “Promising Approaches to Preventing Teen Pregnancy,” in Get Organized: A Guide to Preventing Teen Pregnancy, Volume I (Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 1999). Available on the Web at: www.teenpregnancy.org.

Jane Lawler Dye and Harriet B. Presser, “The State Bonus to Reward a Decrease in ‘Illegitimacy’: Flawed Methods and Questionable Effects,” Family Planning Perspectives 31, no. 3 (May/June 1999).

Sarah McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

Stephanie J. Ventura and Christine A. Bachrach, “Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940-99,” National Vital Statistics Reports 48, no. 16 (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2000).

Richard Wertheimer, Justin Jager, and Kristin Anderson Moore, “State Policy Initiatives for Reducing Teen and Adult Nonmarital Childbearing: Family Planning to Family Caps,” Assessing the New Federalism (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 2000).