Welfare restrictions keep teens in school, UBC researcher finds
VANCOUVER — Teens as young as 13 are more likely to stay in school and proceed to the next grade when access to welfare is restricted, according to a University of B.C. researcher.
Bill Warburton had observed that the dropout rate for children at risk of receiving income assistance rose with B.C.’s welfare caseload through the early 1990s and fell when a substantial package of welfare reforms was introduced Jan. 1, 1996, which removed about 100,000 people from the welfare rolls.
“We wondered if that was a coincidence,” wrote Warburton, executive director of the Child and Youth Development Trajectories Research Unit at UBC.
Using data from the B.C. ministries of education and employment and income assistance, Warburton found that when the New Democrats began a program of welfare reform in the mid-1990s, high school dropout rates began to fall and continued to fall for several years.
Dropout rates had been rising through the early 1990s as access to welfare expanded and was liberally extended to minors, but the change in policy quickly reversed that trend, he explained in an interview.
The effect was stronger the older the student and the closer the student was to being eligible for welfare, he said. But it was also significant in students as young as 13. “I was surprised at how young the kids were that responded (to the change),” said Warburton. “We found strong evidence that it wasn’t a coincidence.”
Warburton worked for the B.C. income security renewal secretariat in the mid-1990s and for the research branch of the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance through 2004. He was aware that some regions of the province were “more on board” with welfare reform during the late 1990s.
By comparing data between regions, he was able to determine that the effect was strongest — that is, kids tended to do better in school — in areas that put the tightest controls on income assistance for people under 25.
The teens’ expectations about the availability of welfare is at the heart of the effect, according to Warburton. “I would have guessed that their decisions would be influenced more subliminally than consciously,” he said. But the data showed that teens who left school and went on to collect welfare tended to come from the same schools, suggesting that localized welfare cultures had developed.
The kids talk to each other about how to apply, they see their older friends getting welfare. The data suggests that kids are communicating with each other about the system and how it works, he said.
“When you hear the anecdotes about kids walking out of school and into the welfare office it seems pretty clear,” Warburton said.