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Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997

Introduction to the AFDC Program
Stephen B. Page Mary B. Larner

Characteristics of AFDC Families

The profile of the typical family receiving AFDC differs in many respects from the popular image of a welfare family. In 1992, some 39% of the parents who received AFDC were white, 37% were black, and 18% were Hispanic. Most AFDC families were small; 43% included only one child. Concerns about teenage childbearing notwithstanding, only 8% of the mothers were under age 20, although another 25% were between 20 and 25 years of age, and many welfare recipients first bore children in their teen years.9

Creating a portrait of the "average" family who received AFDC is more problematic than it would seem at first glance, however, because families with different characteristics tended to rely on AFDC for different lengths of time. Table 1 shows how the education, work experience, age, and marital status of parents when they first received AFDC are related to the length of time they remained dependent on cash assistance. As this table illustrates, parents who received AFDC for long periods of time were most likely to be never-married young mothers with infants, no high school degree, and little work experience when they first enrolled. Parents enrolled for shorter periods of time tended to be older and to have work experience and more education. The first line in Table 1 shows that 42% of new AFDC recipients were likely to receive cash assistance for two years or less, while just over a third remained on the welfare roles for over five years.10

Most recipients began receiving AFDC when their family status changed. A 1983 study showed, for example, that 45% of new recipients had recently divorced or separated and another 30% were unmarried new mothers. Only 15% of new recipients enrolled in AFDC because the family's earnings decreased. Conversely, families typically left AFDC when they married or reconciled, or when their youngest child turned 18. Well less than half left because they became employed.11 As these statistics make clear, movements onto and off the welfare rolls are more strongly influenced by changes in the makeup of individual families than they are by earnings.