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Self-esteem, self-efficacy, and welfare use.

Recent changes in welfare programs, including expanded and strictly enforced work and community service requirements, have raised interest in the factors that lead to welfare receipt and that might affect recipients' success in leaving welfare. Most earlier studies focused on welfare recipients' labor market experiences and human capital characteristics, but recent research has begun to examine psychosocial characteristics, such as self-esteem and self-efficacy. The study described in this article investigated whether family background characteristics and self-esteem and self-efficacy measured early in life related to welfare use in young adulthood. Female welfare recipients scored lower on measures of self-esteem and self-efficacy before they entered the welfare system compared with other women. Multivariate analyses showed a robust and substantive association between self-esteem and welfare use but not between self-efficacy and welfare receipt. The finding that low self-esteem is associated with welfare receipt suggests that welfare recipients may find it much harder to comply with the expanded and stricter work or community service mandates than previously thought.

Key words: self-efficacy; self-esteem; welfare receipt

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 10493) replaced Aid to Families with Dependent children (AFDC) with a capped block grant, temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which mandates a five-year lifetime limit on the receipt of federally funded welfare benefits and requires most welfare mothers to work within two years of entrance into the program.

These new policies have raised interest in the factors that lead to welfare receipt and those that might affect recipients' success in leaving welfare. Most studies of such factors focus on welfare recipients' labor market experiences and human capital characteristics (for example, Blank, 1989; Burtless, 1995; Kunz & Born, 1996). However, recent research has examined the psychosocial characteristics of welfare recipients, and some studies link welfare receipt with low self-esteem and self-efficacy (that is, an external locus of control). For example, Nichols-Casebolt (1986) found that among low-income mothers, those who did not receive welfare scored significantly higher on measures of personal efficacy and self-satisfaction. Popkin's (1990) qualitative study of 149 welfare mothers in Chicago found that long-term welfare recipients had a lower sense of personal efficacy than their short-term counterparts. Mothers with a lower sense of personal efficacy were less likely to mention work as an alternative in Popkin's study and were more likely to report thinking of no alternatives when asked to speculate about what they would do if they could not receive welfare. In contrast, mothers with high self-efficacy were more likely to state that they would not need welfare in one year and that there would be no obstacles to finding work in the future. Similarly, in a longitudinal study of 851 welfare recipients, Parker (1994) found that an enhanced level of mastery, or self-efficacy, was related to reduced welfare reliance. Finally, Pavetti, Holcolmb, and Duke (1995) summarized evidence from welfare workers who reported that low self-esteem is extremely prevalent among welfare recipients.

Recent political debates about welfare reform reflected some of these research findings. Indeed, a popular justification for time limits and early work requirements was the intention to transform the nature of the welfare system from one that saps recipients' self-esteem and self-efficacy by allowing mothers to receive welfare without work requirements or "self-improvement" activities to one that fosters self-motivation and independence (Ellwood, 1987; Mead, 1992). Such notions reflect Kane's (1987) theory, which faults the pre-TANF welfare system as instilling a sense of"learned helplessness' in recipients and suggests that the longer women remain on welfare, the less likely they are to believe in their ability (and consequently make efforts) to leave the welfare system. Related studies on welfare stigma propose that long-term participation in welfare diminishes self-esteem and self-efficacy among low-income single mothers, because recipients are placed in a humiliating relationship with the welfare system (Goodban, 1985; Jarrett, 1996; McLoyd & Wilson, 1991).

These views posit that welfare receipt erodes self-esteem and self-efficacy over time. However, it is also possible that observed differences among welrare recipients predate welfare use and may reflect family background characteristics or lower levels of self-esteem and personal efficacy demonstrated earlier in life. These early factors may lead to later poor outcomes in the realms of fertility, marriage, income, education, and employment that could culminate in welfare use (Andrisani, 1976; Kalil & Kunz, 1998; Menaghan, 1990). For example, Andrisani (1976) suggested that locus of control was related to men's subsequent labor market experience, independent of individual differences in skills, abilities, and demographic characteristics. Menaghan (1990) found that low self-esteem among young mothers was related to fewer completed years of education and employment at lower wages and complexity six years later, controlling for characteristics of the mothers' families of origin and their own early cognitive skills. Therefore, because of their potential link to employment, productivity, and earnings, self-efficacy and self-esteem may be related to welfare receipt. Others (for example, Kalil & Kunz, 1998; Plotnick & Butler, 1991) have found that low self-esteem and self-efficacy, in combination with other psychosocial characteristics, lead to teenage nonmarital childbearing, an established risk factor for welfare use (Maynard, 1997). Self-esteem and self-efficacy also could affect the likelihood that women would apply for welfare if it were available.

This article investigates whether family background characteristics, self-esteem, and personal efficacy measured early in life relate to welfare use in young adulthood. We note that although the links between these early family background and individual characteristics and later welfare use could occur through a variety of mediating factors, our goal is to first establish whether a direct association exists. Most earlier studies of the characteristics of welfare recipients have been directed at factors that relate to length of welfare spells and exits from welrare, and maternal characteristics often are measured after welfare spells have begun. Fewer studies have examined the role of family and individual background factors that predate and could lead to welfare use. Among these, most have examined family demographic variables, such as family structure and poverty status in a woman's family of origin, and have largely ignored the potential role of self-esteem and self-efficacy (for example, McLanahan, 1988).

This investigation has potential policy implications, because low self-esteem and personal efficacy also could affect how women respond to time limits and work requirements (for example, Popkin, 1990). Pavetti, Olson, Nightingale, Duke, and Isaacs (1997) argued that self-esteem and efficacy are germane to successful transitions from welfare to work, acting synergistically to motivate welfare recipients to persist in the face of difficulties and to respond to challenges and opportunities more resourcefully and efficiently. Indeed, Withorn (1996) contended that policies based on quick exits from welfare to work that do not take psychosocial characteristics into account will not succeed in ensuring women's economic independence. Thus, a welfare policy that ignores the possibility that these differences may predate welfare use could be ineffective.


Data and Variables

This study uses data taken from the 1979 through 1994 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) that consists of annual interviews with a nationally representative sample of 12,686 youths between ages 14 and 22. NLSY actually consists of two separate samples, a nationally representative cross-sectional sample and a sample that overrepresents ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged youths. (Baker, Keck, Mott, & Quinlan, 1993). The Center for Human Resource Research (CHRR) at Ohio State University, which administers the NLSY, has developed weights that account for the initial oversampling and for attrition over time. In our analyses, we followed the recommendation of the CHRR to use these weights in univariate analyses. In the first year of the study, respondents answered a series of questions about their family background and completed a scale designed to measure personal efficacy. In the following year they were administered a scale designed to measure self-esteem. In addition to these scales (described more fully later), respondents have been asked about their participation in welfare programs in every year since the study began. The design of the NLSY thus makes it ideal for studying the effects of family background and individual factors, including self-esteem and personal efficacy, on subsequent welfare use.

Our sample consisted of women in the NLSY who were childless as of the 1980 interview, were younger than 20 at that time, and were interviewed at least three times during young adulthood, which we define as being between ages 20 and 28. We restricted our sample to women without children in 1980 to ensure that any subsequent observed spell of welfare was a woman's first since becoming a mother. This restriction may bias our results because we eliminated some respondents who became mothers at an early age; however, because the measures of self-esteem and self-efficacy were obtained in 1979 and 1980, the restriction was necessary to observe these characteristics before welfare receipt. Our second restriction, that the women in our sample be younger than 20 at the time of the 1980 interview, was imposed to minimize this bias. Our final restriction, that women be observed at least three times between ages 20 and 28, was imposed because we measured welfare participation during these years and wished to minimize the risk of misclassifying women who were observed infrequently during that time period.

Our full sample consisted of the 2,620 women who met our sample criteria and had valid answers on all explanatory variables. For some analyses, we also selected a subsample of women who became mothers by age 28 (n = 1,686). We used this subsample to investigate the effect of self-esteem and self-efficacy on the probability of receiving AFDC, conditional on being a mother. This strategy allowed us to explore whether the processes that lead to welfare receipt are different from those that lead to motherhood.

Dependent Variable

The dependent variable was whether the 2,620 women received AFDC in young adulthood, defined as the time between ages 20 and 28. The actual years over which welfare is measured depends on the age of the woman at the beginning of the NLSY study period. That is, we measured welfare receipt between the years 1985 and 1993 for women who were 14 at the beginning of the study, between the years 1984 and 1992 for women who were 15, and so forth. This procedure ensured that we observed each woman over the same period of young adulthood, while maximizing the number of years of data we could use from the NLSY. Our definition of welfare includes AFDC benefits and not other types of welfare, such as food stamps or Supplemental Security Income, because of our interest in the policy implications of the switch from AFDC to TANF.

Independent Variables

The two main independent variables of interest were (1) women's locus of control (Rotter, 1975), or sense of self-efficacy and (2) self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1986). Rotter (1975) defined internal locus of control as a generalized belief in one's own efforts to control desired outcomes, as opposed to believing that outcomes are determined by luck or the effects of powerful others (external locus of control). A modified version of the Rotter (1966) locus of control scale was administered to measure self-efficacy in women of the NLSY in 1979. Each item consists of a forced choice response to two attitudinal statements, one reflecting an internal attitude and the other an external attitude. Scores with the items in this study may range from four to 16, with higher scores reflecting a more external (lower efficacy) locus of control. In the NLSY, this score correlates well with self-esteem, education, and socioeconomic status (Menaghan & Parcel, 1995), although the internal consistency for the whole youth cohort is quite low (Cronbach's alpha = .36), suggesting that the measure may combine several dimensions of control. The internal reliability of this measure in our full sample also is .36. Although the reliability of this scale is substantially lower than generally accepted social science standards, it has been used in earlier research with similar populations (for example, Plotnick, 1992; Plotnick & Butler, 1991) and has yielded similar alphas (for example, .27 to .29).

Self-esteem was measured with the 10-item Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1986). This scale is designed for adolescents and adults to measure the degree of approval or disapproval toward oneself. The Rosenberg scale is used widely and has evidence of good reliability and validity (Cronbach's alpha = .84 to .87, depending on the sample) (Baker et al., 1993). Responses to the 10 items are scored on a four-point scale in which higher scores indicate lower self-esteem. In our sample, the internal reliability of these 10 items was .84.

The remaining independent variables consist of family and individual background variables and a measure of welfare benefits available to our sample during young adulthood. These variables, chosen to reflect risk factors associated with welfare use (Blank, 1989; Kunz & Born, 1996), are race, residence in an urban area at age 14, living in a female-headed household at age 14, poverty status of the respondent's family in 1978, educational attainment of the respondent's mother, and the respondents' score on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT), a measure of achieved cognitive skills that was administered to more than 90 percent of the sample in 1980 (Neal & Johnson, 1996).

Whenever possible, we chose variables that were measured at the same age for each respondent. However, the Rotter scale, the Rosenberg scale, and the AFQT all were administered at a point in time--personal efficacy was measured from ages 14 to 18, and self-esteem and cognitive skills were measured between ages 15 and 19. Because scores on all three of these measures may be affected by age, we also included the age of the respondent as a control variable. An alternative strategy would be to adjust each of these scores by age. In our multivariate analyses, we did this by replacing the raw stores with standardized residuals and noticed no difference in results.

We would like to have included family of origin welfare receipt as an independent variable, given a number of studies that have shown its association with subsequent welfare use (for example, Gottschalk, 1996). Unfortunately, the NLSY did not collect these data. Instead, as noted, we included family of origin poverty status in 1978 as a measure of family resources and an admittedly weak proxy for welfare use. We also included a measure of the mean welfare benefit available to each respondent in our sample during young adulthood. This measure is equal to the sum of 70 percent of the maximum AFDC amount available, the maximum food stamp guarantee, and 37 percent of the average Medicaid expenditure per state. This amount, which varies by state and by year and is expressed in 1987 dollars, has been used in other welfare studies as a proxy for welfare incentives (Moffitt, 1992). We thank Robert Moffitt for supplying this data. We would like to have included also other exogenously determined variables that might affect welfare participation, such as local unemployment rates, but such variables are not available in the public-use NLSY data files.


In our analyses, we first examined mean-level differences in self-esteem and self-efficacy between women who did and those who did not receive welfare by age 28. We then conducted multivariate regression analyses to investigate whether pre-existing differences in self-esteem and self-efficacy affected the likelihood that women would receive welfare, net of other factors known to predict welfare receipt. Because we had a binary dependent variable, we used logistic regression in our multivariate analyses.


Descriptive Statistics

Approximately 14 percent of the 2,620 women received welfare in at least one year during young adulthood, that is, between ages 20 and 28 (Table 1). The average locus of control score is 8.8 (range 4 to 16), the average self-esteem score is 17.9 (range 10 to 40). Among the control variables the average AFQT score is 102.7. The mean age in 1979 was 16. Approximately 13 percent were African American, and 6 percent were Hispanic women who are not white. Seventy-seven percent of the sample resided in an urban area at age 14, and 13 percent lived in a mother-only household at that time. In terms of women's families of origin, 13 percent had families who were poor in 1979. The average number of years of education of respondents' mothers was 11.7 (Table 1).
TABLE 1--Means and Proportions of All Study Variables

 Full Sample
 (N = 2,260)
Study Variable Mean/Proportion SD

Received AFDC by age 28 (proportion) 0.141 0.35
Self-esteem score (mean) 17.9 4.13
Locus of control score (mean) 8.8 2.36
AFQT score (mean) 102.7 29.41
Age in 1979 (mean) 16.0 1.35
Mother's years of schooling (mean) 11.7 2.66
African American (proportion) 0.131 0.34
Hispanic (proportion) 0.062 0.24
In mother-only family at 0.129 0.34
 age 14 (proportion)
Poor in 1978 (proportion) 0.133 0.34
In urban area at age 14 (proportion) 0.774 0.42
Mean adult welfare benefit ($) 663.00 114.86

 Among Mothers by Age 28
 (n = 1,686)
Study Variable Mean/Proportion SD

Received AFDC by age 28 (proportion) 0.238 0.43
Self-esteem score (mean) 18.3 4.05
Locus of control score (mean) 9.0 2.32
AFQT score (mean) 96.0 29.38
Age in 1979 (mean) 15.9 1.33
Mother's years of schooling (mean) 11.2 2.61
African American (proportion) 0.160 0.37
Hispanic (proportion) 0.072 0.26
In mother-only family at 0.141 0.35
 age 14 (proportion)
Poor in 1978 (proportion) 0.174 0.38
In urban area at age 14 (proportion) 0.785 0.41
Mean adult welfare benefit ($) 658.00 116.75

NOTE: Column 1 can be read as follows: "14.1% of women who were childless in 1980 received AFDG by the time they turned 28." Column 2 can be read as Follows: "Of all women who were childless in 1979 and became mothers by the year they turned 28, 23.8% received AFDC." AFQT = Armed Forces Qualifying Test.

As noted earlier, 1,686 women, or 64 percent of the sample, had become mothers by age 28. Of these women, 24 percent received welfare in at least one year during young adulthood (Table 1). Scores for AFQT, self-esteem, and locus of control are poorer for this subset; these women also were more likely to have lived in poverty at the beginning of the study and to have lived in a female-headed household at age 14 (Table 1).

Bivariate Analyses

AFDC mothers have the poorest scores on self-esteem and self-efficacy (Table 2). Non-AFDC mothers have the second-best scores on these two explanatory variables, and nonmothers' scores reflect the best self-esteem and self-efficacy among the three groups. Differences between welfare mothers and all other women in our sample for self-esteem (19.3 versus 17.6) and self-efficacy (9.4 versus 8.7) are significant (p [is less than] .01). Similarly, differences between welfare mothers and all other mothers in self-esteem (19.3 versus 18.0) and self-efficacy (9.4 versus 9.0) also are significant (p [is less than] .01) (Table 2).
TABLE 2--Psychological Wall-Bring, by Outcome at Age 28

 Self-Esteem Self-Efficacy
Outcome by Age 28 M SD M SD

AFDC mother 19.3 4.0 9.4 2.3
Non-AFDC mother 18.0 4.0 9.0 2.3
Nonmother 17.4 4.1 8.5 2.4

NOTE: Column 1 indicates: "Among all women who were childless in 1979, having low self-esteem significantly increased the likelihood of receiving AFDC by age 27." Column 2 indicates: "Among women who were unmarried and childless in 1979 and became mothers by age 27, low self-esteem significantly increased the likelihood of receiving AFDC by age 27." AFDC = Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Multivariate Analyses

To test the effect of self-esteem and self-efficacy net of other family and individual background characteristics on the probability of becoming a welfare recipient by age 28, we conducted two logistic regression analyses. In the first we predicted the probability of becoming a welfare recipient by age 28, relative to all other possibilities, including not becoming a mother. In the second we predicted the probability of becoming a welfare recipient by age 28, conditional on becoming a mother by that time. Not surprisingly, many demographic and family background charactetistics that have been established as risk factors for welfare dependence also are risk factors for welfare entrance. Women who lived in poverty at the beginning of the study were more likely to have received welfare in both samples, as were those who lived in a female-headed household at age 14 (Table 3). The coefficient for the education of the respondent's mother was significant for the full sample but not in the sample limited to mothers and suggests that individuals whose mothers had less education were more likely to receive welfare. African American women were much more likely to enter welfare; however, the coefficient for Hispanic women was not significantly different from zero in either regression analysis. Finally the state welfare benefit was significant in both sets of regressions (Table 3).

TABLE 3--Logistic Regression Analyses Predicting the Odds of Receiving AFDC by Age 28
 Full Sample
Independent Variable Coefficient SE

Self-esteem score 0.044(**) 0.015
Locus of control score -0.007 0.025
Mean AFQT score -0.025(**) 0.002
Age in 1979 -0.027 0.041
Mother's years of schooling -0.046(*) 0.021
African American (1 = yes) 0.704(**) 0.135
Hispanic (1 = yes) -0.180 0.165
In mother-only family at age 14 (1 = yes) 0.283(*) 0.131
Poor in 1978 (1 = yes) 0.362(**) 0.122
In urban area at age 14 (1 = yes) 0.069 0.142
Mean welfare benefit 0.003(**) 0.001
Constant -1.245 0.892

 Among Mothers by Age 28
Independent Variable Coefficient SE

Self-esteem score 0.047(**) 0.016
Locus of control score -0.008 0.027
Mean AFQT score -0.020(**) 0.003
Age in 1979 0.016 0.045
Mother's years of schooling -0.036 0.023
African American (1 = yes) 0.849(**) 0.145
Hispanic (1 = yes) -0.138 0.177
In mother-only family at age 14 (1 = yes) 0.339(*) 0.142
Poor in 1978 (1 = yes) 0.313(*) 0.131
In urban area at age 14 (1 = yes) 0.052 0.152
Mean welfare benefit 0.003(**) 0.001
Constant -2.222 0.963

NOTE: AFQT = Armed Forces Qualifying Test.

(*) p < .05. (**) p < .01.

Two individual background variables, including one of our main variables of interest, also were statistically significant in both sets of regressions. In both analyses, higher AFQT scores are associated with lower probabilities of welfare entrance. The self-esteem coefficient was large and positive in both regressions (p (.01), indicating that women with lower self-esteem are more likely to become welfare recipients, both in relation to all other women and relative to other mothers. The locus of control measure was actually negative, indicating that those with less self-efficacy were less likely to receive welfare, but the coefficient was not significant in either regression analysis.


What do these analyses tell us? First, welfare recipients score lower on measures of self-esteem and self-efficacy before they enter the welfare system compared with other women. This suggests that at least some of the differences described in earlier studies are pre-existing and may be factors in women's entering the welfare system.

The link between self-esteem and welfare use is robust to the inclusion of demographic characteristics known to predict welfare use, including family structure, poverty, AFQT score, race, and level of welfare benefits available. This result is noteworthy given that the relationship between self-esteem and welfare receipt is a subject that has not been researched vigorously or frequently. Nor, as far as we have been able to determine, has much attention yet been paid to issues related to the assessment of clients' psychosocial characteristics in the new, time-limited, work-oriented welfare programs.

The association between self-esteem and subsequent welfare use appears substantive. When we generated predicted probabilities (based on the means of all explanatory variables), we found that women who scored one-half of a standard deviation above the mean score for self-esteem were 16 percent more likely to have received welfare than those who scored one-half of a standard deviation below the mean. As noted earlier, this difference existed even after controlling for other background risk factors for welfare use and even though self-esteem could have been measured well in advance of welfare receipt. Thus, these findings suggest that self-esteem may play an important role in welfare use, either directly or through its effect on events that lead to welfare use.

However, the efficacy score was neither significant nor in the expected direction. Although this finding could simply reflect the fact that early measures of self-efficacy do not relate to welfare use in young adulthood, we explored two other possibilities. Given the low reliability of this scale, we conducted analyses predicting welfare use from the four individual items that make up the scale (Plotnick & Butler, 1991). None of these individual items was significant in the regression equations. In addition, although the research reviewed earlier generally suggests that an external locus of control would lead to welfare receipt, there is some evidence that an external locus of control among ethnic minority and low-income women may reflect better mental health (for example, Gurin, Gurin, Lao, & Beattie, 1969) and thus, could relate differently to welfare receipt or its determinants in different subgroups. We explored this hypothesis by conducting analyses separately among African American and white women in our full sample. Although the coefficient for the efficacy scale was negative and larger for African American women than for white women, providing some support for this hypothesis, it was not significant in the regression equations for either group.


What do our findings imply about the likelihood that welfare recipients will succeed in the new world of welfare? Although our data do not allow us to answer this question directly, one very real possibility is that welfare recipients may find it much harder to comply with the expanded and much stricter work or community service mandates than previously thought. That is, increased pressure on people suffering from low self-esteem on entrance to welfare could lead to failure or noncompliance. In virtually all states, sanctions for noncompliance will be swifter than before and likely more punitive too; in many states, noncompliance will result in the entire family's becoming ineligible for cash aid. It seems reasonable to speculate that mothers who enter welfare with a low sense of self-esteem may find it hard to be optimistic or to believe that their own or agency-assisted job search efforts will yield positive results. Empirical evidence from New Chance, a comprehensive and voluntary program designed to help young mothers achieve economic self-sufficiency, suggests that difficult circumstances experienced by young women before program participation and even before becoming mothers, such as a history of low achievement or stressful life experiences associated with growing up poor, played a role in the women's inability to succeed in the program, in part because of the psychosocial characteristics of the participants and the concomitant stresses associated with the program's requirements (Quint & Musick, 1994).

Our data do not permit a test of the effect of self-esteem and self-efficacy on the transition from welfare to work. This remains an important issue for future research. In addition, given our finding that low self-esteem predates welfare use, more research on this issue is warranted. For example, it would be useful to know whether self-esteem affects decisions about education, work, marriage, having children, applying for welfare when eligible, and so forth. It also is important for future research to establish how early measures of self-esteem affect the timing and duration of welfare receipt. This research would shed more light on the pathways through which women with low self-esteem enter the welfare system.


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This research was supported in part by a grant from the Presidential Initiatives Fund at the University of Michigan to the Program on Poverty and Social Welfare Policy and by grant number R24 MH51363-02 from the National Institutes of Mental Health to the Center on Poverty, Risk, and Mental Health at the University of Michigan. An earlier version of this article was presented at the April 1997 Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Washington, DC. The authors gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments of Sheldon Danziger, Irwin Garfinkel, Barbara Berkman, Michael Spencer, and Scott Allard on earlier drafts of this article.

Original manuscript received June 20, 1997 Final revision received December 14, 1998 Accepted December 21, 1998

James Kunz, PhD, is assistant professor, School of Social Work, Columbia University, 622 West 113th Street, New York, NY 10025; e-mail: jk533@ Ariel Kalil, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow, Poverty Research and Training Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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Author:Kunz, James; Kalil, Ariel
Publication:Social Work Research
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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