People on welfare can earn more money in their jobs — and potentially leave the program — if the trauma they have faced since childhood is addressed, Drexel University research shows.

A new study led by Drexel's Center for Hunger-Free Communities shows — trauma support could be the key to success in the population who receives welfare.

"Financial education without the trauma-informed peer support had virtually no impact on improving income and in promoting health," said Mariana Chilton, professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health. "Once the trauma-informed peer support was mixed in, income started to improve and mental health for the parent improved."

Officially titled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the state program is almost purely focused on getting recipients into the workforce, with little thought given to other conditions that might affect recipients' advancement opportunities or ability to secure competitive pay.

But the study, which tested the effectiveness of a financial empowerment program with this trauma support built in, found that those who received added peer support for past or current trauma were significantly more likely to earn more money in their jobs.

More than 100 TANF recipients who are caregivers to young children took part in the study. And those who received the trauma-informed peer support experienced improvement in their feelings of self-confidence (termed self-efficacy) and in dealing with depression, according to the study, published in the Journal of Child and Families Studies.

"It turns out that the trauma work that the groups did help to create a sense of connectedness and purpose that helped caregivers build the muscle to earn more and to promote a sense of well-being," Chilton said.

A reason for that may be that TANF recipients are very likely to have experienced trauma as a child or have ongoing experiences with it. This trauma might include being exposed to neglect, abuse or severe poverty. A third of participants may have a work-limiting health condition (like depression), and exposure to violence and adversity is extremely common.

So Chilton and her research team conducted a study in which 103 caregivers on TANF taking part in the Center's Building Wealth and Health Network were split into three groups:

  1. A group in which the TANF recipients received normal TANF programming, focusing on employment 
  2. Another group in which the recipients took 28 weeks of financial education programming
  3. And a third that combined the financial education with peer support that took trauma into account 

The research team found that participants who received the full intervention — financial education and trauma-focused peer support — were significantly more likely to make more money. Participants who only got financial education programming or the regular TANF programming had no significant changes in their earnings.

The significant benefits of trauma-informed support were not just limited to the caregivers, however.

"It is good for the long-term success for the caregiver, and they can pass it on to their children," Chilton concluded. "You can see it in our results: Those who got the trauma-informed peer support and financial education were able to protect their kids from signs of developmental risk. That's profound for two generations."