Ohio plan interests welfare reformers

September 20, 1994|By New York Times News Service

A closely watched Ohio program that docks or increases welfare payments to prod teen-age mothers into attending school is pushing more of these young women to complete high school, a study that is being made public today has found.

The program, known as LEAP, an acronym for Learning, Earning and Parenting, has interested policy-makers because all current proposals to overhaul the welfare system require teen-age mothers to finish school. That requirement is based on the belief that better educational credentials will allow them to get off welfare and win better jobs.

The study followed 1,700 Cleveland teen-age mothers on welfare. It found that LEAP's combination of financial incentives and deterrents, along with its package of social services, persuaded 5.6 percent more mothers to graduate from high school or to receive a high school equivalency diploma over a three-year period, compared to a control group of mothers outside the program. And the program is comparatively inexpensive, costing $971 per teen-ager over the three-year period.

"These results are sufficiently encouraging to suggest that other states consider this," said Judith M. Gueron, president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit, New York-based research group that conducted the study.

Mary Jo Bane and David Ellwood, assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services who have helped shape President Clinton's plan to overhaul welfare, issued a statement yesterday saying the study's results offered evidence that the president's plan can work. The proposal would also allow states to use financial incentives like those in the LEAP program.

Researchers found that the program was most successful when it reached teen-age mothers before they dropped out of school. Of those still in school, 8.8 percent more LEAP participants than nonparticipants graduated, the study found. But among mothers who had already dropped out, that difference narrowed to 2.6 percent, a statistically insignificant gain.

The program operates in all 88 counties in Ohio. It requires that all teen-age mothers on welfare attend school or have $62 a month deducted from their welfare payments. If they attend class regularly they receive a bonus of $62 a month. Their monthly welfare checks vary, from $212 with the penalty to $336 with the bonus.

A previous study of LEAP found that improved school attendance was linked to these incentives and deterrents in combination with the services that the program offers, including free child care and transportation to or from school or a child care center, and a social worker assigned to each teen-ager. Several other states are trying similar types of programs, but few offer social services as part of their programs.

The Cleveland study also found that an expanded and more expensive version of LEAP only marginally increased the program's success. This enhanced version, which costs $1,965 for each teen-ager, offered in-school child care, a case manager stationed in the schools themselves and community outreach services.

But David Long, a co-author of the study, said the enhanced program, like the regular LEAP program, worked much better for teen-agers in school, prodding 7 percent more of them to graduate compared to classmates in the regular program. What seemed central to the enhanced program's success was the presence of a case manager who acted as the girls' advocate.

But the researchers cautioned that the LEAP program alone is not enough to raise graduation rates significantly. Only 21.1 percent of the LEAP teen-agers completed high school.

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