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Welfare stigma and children's behavior.

Consistent with studies examining the mental health impact of social welfare program participation amongst adults, this research reports a welfare stigma for male children living in participant families. While societal concerns over children's health issues have grown steadily over the past several decades, the increased awareness has produced relatively modest improvements, with the smallest improvements being realized for children who live in poor and near-poor families. These families are often headed by a single parent and are likely suffering economic, food, or energy insecurity. Children growing up in these families have an increased probability of being overweight or obese, suffering from asthma, diabetes, ADHD, or having a learning disability (Foster, Jiang, and Gibson, Health Services Research, 2010; Joyce, Breen et al., Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk, 2012; Magnuson and Votruba-Drzal, Focus, 2009; Seith and Isakson, National Center for Children in Poverty, 2011).

These conditions are often persistent in nature and follow children throughout thenadult lives. In fact, research indicates that adults who grew up in households with low socioeconomic status face an increased risk of suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, and premature death caused by heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, liver cancer, or stomach cancer (Cohen, Janicki-Deverts et al., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2010; Galobardes, Lynch, and Smith, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2008; Pollitt, Rose, and Kaufman, BMC Public Health, 2005). To help combat these issues and deter the vicious poverty cycle, there are several federally funded social safety net programs available to low-income families.

While these programs are well intentioned and serve a vital role in the well-being of many citizens, they are costly to administer (in 2012 program budgets ranged from $6.8 to $74.6 billion) and many impose time and psychological costs (i.e., a welfare stigma) on their participants (Manchester and Mumford, Social Science Research Network, 2009). The psychological costs are often the more significant concern, as both observers and participants view participation through a negative lens. Non-participants often view benefit receipt as a conscious choice associated with laziness, apathy, and a desire to "free-ride" off the work of others. These views create an external stigma of welfare program participation. Those participating in the program often view their own enrollment as a sign of failure or a signal that they "are not good enough" to support themselves, which generates an internal stigma.

These effects are fairly well documented for adults but the literature concerning children is relatively sparse. To consider the possibility that children from families who participate in safety net programs bear a welfare stigma, we employ data from the 2010 wave of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Children and Young Adult survey (NLSY79-CH). The NLSY79 is one of the largest and longest running longitudinal studies of the American population currently being conducted while the NLSY79-CH collects data about all children born to (or adopted by) females of the NLSY79.

Given that behavior is often the most reliable measure of a child's mental state we consider the impact a family's participation in at least one of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), or Medicaid has on a child's Behavior Problem Index (BPI) score. The BPI was originally designed for the NLSY79 and is based on responses to a series of 28 questions that ask about a child's mood, tendency towards depression and anxiety, their perception of others, their sense of self worth and of being loved, their ability to concentrate or pay attention, and their interactions with their peer groups over the past three months. The index is constructed such that higher scores indicate that a child is more prone to exhibit "bad behavior".

Using standard regression techniques and a model that incorporates child-specific and family level socio-demographic characteristics as well as detailed information about program participation we find that enrollment (in at least one program) increases a male child's BPI score by roughly 4.6 points and 9.5 percentiles. Similar effects were not identified for girls, suggesting that the stigma is bilateral in nature and felt more heavily by boys. This result merits additional economic research, as the mental and emotional costs of participation appear to counteract the health and nutrition benefits provided by the programs, thereby reducing the net-benefit of participation. If, the adverse effects of the stigma outweigh the health benefits derived from program participation, eligible families may choose to forgo benefits, potentially explaining the low take-up rates reported for SNAP and WIC (where participation can be readily observed by non-family members). It is possible that adjustments in benefit distribution mechanisms may mitigate this and improve participation rates.

JEL 100

DOI 10.1007/s11294-016-9581-0

Published online: 25 April 2016

Acknowledgments We are grateful to Nicole M. Coomer, Carlos Liard-Muriente, and the participants of the 80th International Atlantic Economic Conference held in Boston, MA, October 2015.

Christina Robinson [1] * Paramita Dhar [1]

[mail] Christina Robinson

Paramita Dhar

[1] Department of Economics, Central Connecticut State University, Maria Sanford Hall 30404, 1615 Stanley Street, New Britain, CT 06050, USA
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTE
Author:Robinson, Christina; Dhar, Paramita
Publication:International Advances in Economic Research
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2016
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