Welfare Participation and Youth Depression: Correlation or Causation?

July 26, 2019

Professor Qin Gao has contributed to a paper showing that, while some studies are linking welfare participation and levels of depression in youth, the linkage cannot be confirmed.

For decades, a range of social welfare programs in the United States have been launched with the aim of improving the health and well-being of low-income Americans by attempting to lift them out of poverty. But, since their inception, debates have been raging not only about the effectiveness of such programs but also on whether or not welfare participation has a harmful effect on recipients’ mental health. Does it become a “marker” for poverty, representing poor access to health care, safe housing and neighborhoods, quality education, and jobs with living wages?

A paper published last November—co-authored by School of Social Work Professor Qin Gao—considers the latter question, whether participation in such programs may actually have a detrimental effect on mental health, particularly among youth.

In the paper, which appears in the journal Children and Youth Services Review, Gao and her colleagues synthesize existing literature on the relationship between welfare participation and mental health outcomes among youth in the United States. They note that “an increasing number of studies have observed a positive correlation between welfare participation and negative mental health outcomes.” However, in conducting a systematic review of the existing research on that correlation, the researchers find that divergent research approaches and the use of varying depression measurement instruments have made it difficult to identify causation.

In other words, the researchers write, “the findings cannot be used to support claims that welfare participation leads to higher levels of depression.”

READ: “Welfare participation and depression among youth in the United States: A systematic review,” in Children and Youth Services Review (9.17.18)