A Johns Hopkins economist will be able to continue his groundbreaking study of the relationship between welfare and out-of-wedlock child bearing with a prestigious MERIT grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award, which fewer than 5 percent of NIH investigators have received since the program began 16 years ago, essentially guarantees Robert Moffitt at least $1.3 million in funding over the next 10 years.
"The MERIT award is really our best way of saying, 'Well, you've carved out a niche for yourself in the field and we're going to make it easy for you to continue to receive our support,'" said Jeff Evans, a senior project officer with NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "That's a signal from us that he's arrived as a scientist."
Moffitt said he was grateful for the support and is looking forward to embarking on the next phase of his research, which will be to try to determine if the surge in marriage rates in the past five years can be linked to welfare reform or other factors, such as a turn toward conservatism in the United States.
Winning the MERIT award, which provides for $675,000 over the first five years and at least that much over the last five years, was particularly satisfying for Moffitt, an economist, as they traditionally go to researchers in the hard sciences.
"MERIT awards are rarities in and of themselves," Evans said, "because they're really reserved for people who have established themselves beyond question and who are working in high profile areas and are likely to be on the cutting edge for the foreseeable future."
Moffitt began his work in this area more than 10 years ago, with an eye toward discovering whether there is actually a relationship between welfare benefits and women having children outside of marriage. In the first phase, he decided to look at states with generous welfare benefits, like New York and California, to see if they had higher incidences of out of wedlock childbirth -- and they did.
"The results of that analysis showed that states with higher benefit levels do have higher rates of single motherhood than most low-benefit states," Moffitt said. "However, the lower benefit states were also located in the South and that area of the country has high marriage rates."
The South's relative conservatism and strong social tradition of marriage might have accounted for the difference, rather than the more generous welfare benefits of California and New York, Moffitt reasoned.
He decided to examine California and New York over time. He looked at welfare benefits in those two states historically, and at what happened when benefits went up and down. He didn't find any corresponding rise or fall in out- of-wedlock childbearing as a result, he said.
"What I found was there was almost no correlation between trends in benefits and trends in out-of-wedlock childbearing by state," he said. Later, he decided to try to find out what was causing out-of-wedlock childbearing, which had been on the rise in the past 50 years, if it was not welfare.
What he found was interesting, if not entirely obvious. "The earning levels and employment levels of less-educated men have been declining," he said. "And that had an effect on the attractiveness of these men as marrying partners." Surveys of low-income women bear out the statistics, Moffitt said, and confirm that they are not interested in marrying men with low income and low job prospects.
Moffitt's next research effort will be to look at the effects of welfare reform on out-of-wedlock childbearing. He notes that one of the goals of the 1996 welfare reform was to discourage people on welfare from having more children out of wedlock. And in fact, marriage rates have increased in recent years. But is that because of welfare reform or other factors, like a general shift to conservatism in American society?
Over the next five years, he and his graduate assistants will pore over longitudinal surveys, census records and vital statistics, in an effort to find out if welfare reform can, indeed, be credited with a decrease in out-of-wedlock child bearing.
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