A review from Gender & Society, August 1998

Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door
By Kathleen Mullan Harris. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997, 195 pp., $39.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Anne R. Roschelle, University of San Francisco

In her book Teen Mothers and the Revolving Werfare Door, Kathleen Mullan Harris examines the relationship between African American teenage mothers in Baltimore and the welfare system. Using longitudinal survey data from a sample of 288 women living in Baltimore between 1966 and 1987, Mullan Harris dispels many myths about teenage motherhood and welfare dependence. Life-table techniques and event history models are used to analyze patterns of welfare receipt and the transitions in and out of welfare dependence among adolescent mothers. Mullan Harris also uses case histories to weave the stories of individual women into her work. Patterns of welfare receipt and employment histories of Baltimore teen mothers refute pejorative images of welfare mothers that pervade the discourse on welfare reform.

Mullan Harris's research is pivotal particularly because it discredits stereotypic representations of teenage mothers. She illustrates that although welfare receipt is common among teenage mothers and occurs quickly (usually within the first two years of a birth), the average time spent on welfare is relatively short, lasting for two years or less. In fact, after two years, about 50 percent of teen mothers and single mothers generally had ended their welfare receipt. This finding is especially significant because many conservative analysts argue that during the past 20 years welfare dependence skyrocketed because of increased benefits and relaxed eligibility requirements. Mullan Harris argues forcefully that the image of widespread and persistent welfare dependence among Black teenage mothers is inaccurate, although she does acknowledge that teenage mothers are more vulnerable to long-term receipt than older single mothers.

Based on her data analysis, Mullan Harris identifies three types of welfare recipients. "Early exits" are women who leave welfare rapidly and do not subsequently receive welfare. "Persistent recipients" are those who experience one-time spells lasting three years or more. "Cyclers" experience multiple usage of welfare, resulting in long-term dependence if the total time on the program is cumulated. Mullan Harris explicates how these three types of welfare experience are socially structured by various demographic, economic, and familial characteristics.

An interesting finding is that although initial welfare receipt usually occurs within two years of childbearing and is often the result of marital disruption, return spells are primarily associated with job loss. Welfare spells that begin with familial structural changes like childbearing and marital or cohabitation dissolution are more likely to lead to persistent or repeated use of welfare, whereas spells that begin with job loss signify brief receipt. Similarly, the most common way to exit welfare is through employment. Because work is the most efficient route out of welfare, public policy should focus on getting welfare mothers into the workforce and keeping them in jobs that provide more than substandard poverty wages, Based on her research findings, Mullan Harris contends that the underlying assumption that welfare mothers refuse to work is fallacious. She argues that the public debate on welfare should reflect the obvious work efforts that are demonstrated by a majority of welfare recipients.

Perhaps Mullen Harris's most important finding is that teenage mothers who experienced welfare as children did not exit welfare more slowly than the mothers whose families did not receive welfare. Clearly, this finding illustrates that a self-perpetuating welfare culture defined by the transmission of long-term intergenerational welfare receipt does not exist.