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WASHINGTON (AP) – Women on welfare are significantly more likely to face physical and emotional health problems than other American women, according to a study in four major cities. Women who are not working are at particular risk.

The results help explain why some people have more trouble than others getting off public assistance, researchers said.

“We strongly believe that it’s really the health barriers that are preventing people from moving into employment,” said John Martinez, who wrote the report for Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., an independent welfare research firm.

The report, released Wednesday, found that three out of four women on welfare had at least one health problem considered to be a potential barrier to work. More than two in five had at least two of these problems.

Among the problems: having a sick child, a history of physical abuse, being morbidly obese, at risk of depression, having used a hard drug in the past month, homeless, more than five doctor visits in the past year and a poor score on a standard measure of physical health.

The study, part of MDRC’s Urban Change project, surveyed nearly 4,000 poor women in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia, and conducted in-depth interviews with 171 of them. The research, which was paid for by the federal government and private charitable foundations, was conducted in 1998 and 1999, after new welfare rules took effect.

The study looked at women living in very poor neighborhoods who had been on welfare in May 1995, including those who were still on assistance and those who had left for work or other reasons.

Women who had left welfare and were working were much less likely to have several of the health problems than those who remained on the rolls or those who had left but were not working. Still, nearly two-thirds of those working had at least one of the eight problems.

And those who had left welfare were much less likely to have health insurance, since virtually everyone on welfare gets Medicaid.

Among the findings:

One-fourth of women on welfare reported fair to poor health, compared with 8 percent of all women and 12 percent of all black women.

On a standardized test of physical health, 31 percent scored low, compared with 10 percent all adults aged 18 to 44.

Some 26 percent scored low on a standardized test of mental health compared with 15 percent of all adults aged 18 to 44.

Forty percent currently smoked cigarettes, compared to 23 percent of women over 18.

Two-thirds were significantly overweight, compared to 37 percent of women ages 20 to 34 and 50 percent of women ages 35 to 44.

Half of all the women had trouble getting the food they need, compared with 10 percent of all families.

Women who were off welfare and working were much less likely to face problems. For instance, 17 percent of these women reported fair to poor health, compared with 32 percent of those on welfare who were not working and 35 percent of those who were not working or collecting welfare benefits.

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