University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Employment and Training Institute

Brief Summary

The Impact of Learnfare on Milwaukee County Social Service Clients

by John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, March 1990


The Wisconsin Learnfare program is operated by income maintenance staff at the county level and the data used to determine which families are sanctioned does not include information from county social service staff or Children's Court staff. This report, part of a larger evaluation of social services for Milwaukee County, examined the experiences of all Learnfare participants in the county's Department of Social Services and in the Milwaukee County Children's Court system. It was not a sample, but required a review of over four million client computer records, including all Children's Court records since 1979, family social service records since at least 1987, and all records on individuals in the income maintenance system including all Learnfare participants from September 1988 through December 1989.

This analysis focused on two areas: children involved in the Children's Court system (for protective services or delinquency) and children in families where social service staff had indicated child abuse or neglect as a possible problem. The child abuse or neglect "indicator" was created for those families with any children who had an event in Children's Court under the statutes for abuse or neglect, families investigated or provided ongoing services through Protective Services, and families for whom a social worker had indicated a possible problem in this area. It is important to note that these families have not necessarily had a court conviction (although some have), but that at a minimum a case worker has investigated one or more members of the family for abuse or neglect and has indicated in the casehead's social service file that this is a problem to be monitored. In some families the person who abused the child may no longer be in the household or the abused child may have been removed to foster care or a group home.


  1. From September 1988 through December 1989, the families of 6,612 Milwaukee County teens were "sanctioned" for failure to meet Learnfare school attendance requirements. In each case the family's monthly AFDC check was reduced to eliminate a payment for the teen who did not meet the school attendance requirements. For teen parents living with one child, the monthly AFDC payment was reduced by $190 to about one-half the funds needed to support two persons above the poverty level. For a family of four, the AFDC loss was $100 reducing the payment to about two-thirds of the poverty level.
  2. Many teens sanctioned under Learnfare came from families with histories of child abuse or neglect. 1,327 Milwaukee County teens sanctioned under Learnfare were in families identified by county social service workers or the Children's Court as having problems with child abuse or neglect. These youth made up 20 percent of all sanctioned teens in the county.
  3. Over one-third of teen parents who were sanctioned under Learnfare came from families with indications of child abuse or neglect. A total of 570 teen parents, or 36 percent of the 1,562 Milwaukee County teen parents sanctioned under Learnfare during the sixteen month period, had child abuse or neglect indicators for their immediate family.
  4. Seventy-three percent of eighteen-year old mothers who had been in Children's Court earlier as children in need of protective services and who were placed under the Learnfare policy were sanctioned.
  5. Substantial overlap was found between family abuse/neglect and delinquency charges. Many youth indicated as victims of abuse or neglect or with siblings who were abused later returned to Children's Court with delinquency charges. When teens who had been in the Children's Court system (either as children in need of protective services or for delinquency) were added to the group of teens living in families with indications of child abuse and neglect, they comprised 2,722 (or 41 percent) of the 6,612 Milwaukee County teens sanctioned. Reductions in AFDC payments to the families of these teens accounted for $1.5 million of the AFDC savings attributed to the Learnfare program for the sixteen month period.
  6. An investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services of 63 Milwaukee County thirteen and fourteen year olds sanctioned for at least five of the first six months of Learnfare found that 22 of the teens had been investigated as reported victims of child abuse or neglect. These findings, completed in July 1989, are consistent with the results of this report and based on some of the same data sources.
  7. In December 1989, the federal Department of Health and Human Services waived Wisconsin from the provisions of the Family Support Act which required an assessment of "the education, child care, and supportive services needs of each participant...and each individual's family circumstances" before requiring teens to participate in the Learnfare program.

See also, Lois Quinn, "Using Threats of Poverty to Promote School Attendance: Implications of Wisconsin's Learnfare Experiment for Families," Journal of Children & Poverty 1 (Summer 1995): 5-16.

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