Study suggests children read and behave better if working families rise above poverty level

June 10, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas—Providing earning supplements and other assistance to poor working families boosts their children’s academic and social skills, a study of hundreds of Milwaukee families directed by a child development expert at The University of Texas at Austin suggests.

The latest findings about the New Hope Project released by the university and MDRC, a New York City-based nonprofit organization, were based on a study of 745 families with children between 6 and 15 years of age. Half the families were eligible to receive three years of wage supplements to raise parental income above the poverty line, as well as subsidized health insurance and child care when parents were employed full-time. The other half received regular community support. Most parents in both groups were single mothers initially receiving welfare.

Children in the New Hope-assisted families were better readers based on standardized test scores and were reported by parents to have higher grades in reading and writing—even two years after support ended. Teenagers in assisted families were more involved in school and more likely to consider college. New Hope parents also noted that their children behaved better, a finding echoed by teachers, especially for boys.

“The study has major implications for policymakers trying to design programs that achieve the goal that tops the national social policy agenda: to improve the lives of low-income families,” said Dr. Aletha Huston, the study’s director and the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development at The University of Texas at Austin.

Colleagues at MDRC and three other universities helped evaluate the project.

The positive effects of New Hope on children’s achievement and behavior may have resulted from assisted children spending more time in center-based child care, as opposed to unsupervised or home-based care. And adolescents participated more often in structured after-school activities than those in unassisted families.

Huston noted that children from families that had received assistance might continue to reap benefits as they age. So could their families, since the five-year study found that more New Hope families earned higher wages by study’s end than the other families (27 percent vs. 20 percent earning above $11 per hour).

To address long-term benefits, the investigators recently received a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development for evaluating the families when their children are between 9 and 18 years of age.

MDRC, which also will help lead that study, is a nonprofit, social policy research organization that seeks to enhance the effectiveness of social policies and programs through research and public dissemination of its findings.

The New Hope Project was started by a community-based organization in Milwaukee. The evaluation of its effects on children was made possible by the MacArthur Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood. Investigators at Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of California, Los Angeles, also participated in the project. New Hope is funded by foundations and federal agencies. Results of the five-year report are available at the MDRC Web site.

For more information contact: Barbra Rodriguez, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675.