Social policy, such as the legalization of abortion and the federal bans on lead in the 1970s, has been shown to significantly impact crime rates. With recent increases in juvenile arrests and violent crime rates, we explore whether further social policy—namely the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) welfare reform—has had an impact on crime.

There are various mechanisms by which the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, created by the 1996 PRWORA welfare reform, may influence criminal activity, especially among older children. Many welfare recipients were required to participate in work and education activities, which have a theoretically ambiguous effect on children. For example, work and education activities may increase household income and parental confidence. Increased resources and positive role modeling would both be expected to lower the risk of problem behaviors and delinquent activity for their children. Conversely, work requirements reduce the amount of time a parent spends in the home and may reduce the amount of supervision a child receives, particularly for older children who do not qualify for childcare benefits. Previous research has suggested a link between decreased parental supervision— especially that of the mother—and criminal behavior. TANF reforms may also lead to less overall income for families if reduced cash payments are not offset by employment earnings. The shift toward greater TANF spending on work supports (e.g. transportation and child care for younger children) and less cash assistance may have left families with fewer total resources, making crime and delinquency more attractive for older children.

To determine the impact of the PRWORA reform on juvenile crime, we utilize a 1990 to 2006 panel of data to estimate state-level arrest statistics as a function of how stringent the work requirements were for adults parents of children aged 13 to 15. For comparability with the prior literature and to address the broader issue of the array of factors that influence crime rates, we closely follow the well-established crime and delinquency literature when selecting control variables.

Our results suggest that stricter work requirements experienced by 13 to 15 year-olds increase their violent crime activity 2 to 4 years later. An increase of one standard deviation in the severity of the work requirement policy results in 5.5 more annual violent crime arrests per capita, an 14.5 percent increase. These results indicate that states should consider options for mitigating these effects, such as support services targeted at teenagers, when implementing the stricter federal work requirements outlined in the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) of 2005. Conversely, we find no effect of welfare work requirements on juvenile property crime arrests, consistent with the literature on crime and delinquency among juveniles of low-socioeconomic status.

Document Type

Research Paper

Publication Date


Discussion Paper Number

DP 2008-04