Public Assistance Use Among Two-Parent Families:
An Analysis of TANF and Food Stamp Program Eligibility and Participation

Executive Summary

[ Main Page of Report | Contents of Report ]

Contents

In accordance with the goals of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, states increasingly are focusing on family formation and on the role of state policy in promoting and supporting healthy marriages. To understand the role of state policy in promoting marriage, we must first look to existing programs and understand the role they play in the lives of married-parent families, particularly the extent to which low-income married-parent families are eligible for various public assistance programs and the degree to which eligible married-parent families obtain benefits.

Although public assistance programs such as the Food Stamp Program (FSP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are available to low-income married-parent families, married-parent families do not use these programs to the same extent as single-parent families. For instance, TANF programs have historically targeted single-parent families. Some research on the FSP suggests that eligible married-parent families are less likely than eligible single-parent families to participate in the program. However, little research has been conducted on married-parent families' TANF and FSP eligibility and participation rates, how these rates may have changed, or how the rates compare with rates for single-parent families. Furthermore, although some research has been conducted on the factors influencing the program participation decisions of single-parent families, little attention has been given to understanding the factors influencing the participation decisions of married-parent families.

To learn about TANF and FSP eligibility and participation of two-parent families, the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR) to conduct an exploratory study. The goals of this study were (1) to determine appropriate data sources, methodologies, and data definitions for analyzing program eligibility and participation; (2) to document how both TANF and FSP eligibility and participation rates among married-parent families differ from the rates among single-parent families; (3) to explore, for both family types, the factors that are associated with eligibility and participation in TANF and FSP; (4) to examine TANF and FSP eligibility and participation rates for cohabiting families; and (5) to suggest avenues for further research on the program eligibility and participation of married-parent families.

In this study, we therefore sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What Are Eligibility and Participation Rates in TANF and FSP Among Married-Parent Households?
  2. What Factors Are Related to Eligibility and Participation in TANF and FSP Among Married-Parent Families?
  3. How Do TANF and FSP Eligibility and Participation Rates of Cohabiting Households Compare to Those of Married- and Single-Parent Households?

Data Sources and Methodological Approach

To address these questions, we used data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and information on simulated program eligibility and participation from the Urban Institute's Transfer Income Model (TRIM3) and from MPR's Micro-Analysis of Transfers to Households (MATH®) microsimulation models. We supplement these data with state-level information on key program parameters and state economic conditions. All data are from the year 2000, the most recent year for which the microsimulation models were available at the time of the analysis. We used descriptive analytic methods to address the first and third sets of questions, and we used multivariate methods to address the second set of questions. It is important to note that the data, methods, and definitions used for these analyses were chosen to help inform the research questions of this report, rather than to provide point estimates of program caseloads. Therefore, the results presented here differ in numerous ways from official agency statistics released for TANF and FSP.

Because of ASPE's interest in keeping a common sample for determining eligibility in TANF and FSP, we examined participation and eligibility at the household level for our descriptive analysis. This also allowed us to capture characteristics of other individuals who are part of the household (such as a cohabiting partner or the parents of an unmarried mother), but are not classified as part of the family unit. Since the TANF program unit is typically the family, the unit in many cases is smaller than the household, and unit income may be smaller than household income. This is less likely to occur in the case of FSP, since the FSP program unit is typically the household. Because eligibility and participation determinations are made at the program-unit level, we aggregated the units to the household level. For the multivariate analysis, we conducted the analysis at the program unit level, but included both household- and unit-level characteristics as covariates in order to capture the characteristics of other household members that might influence program participation decisions.

To determine program eligibility, we used data simulated by the microsimulation models, as information on eligibility is not directly available from the CPS. We used these simulated data on eligibility for both the descriptive and multivariate analyses. The CPS has self-reported information on program participation, which we used for our multivariate analysis of factors related to participation. Because of underreporting of program participation in the CPS and other survey data, for our descriptive analyses we used simulated participation data from the microsimulation models, which correct for underreporting of participation.

Key Findings

  1. What Are the Eligibility and Participation Rates in TANF and FSP Among Married-Parent Households?
  2. What Factors Are Related to Eligibility and Participation in TANF and FSP Among Married-Parent Families?
  3. How Do TANF and FSP Eligibility and Participation Rates Among Cohabiting Households Compare to Those of Married- and Single-Parent Households?

Conclusions

This study conducted exploratory research to learn more about factors related to eligibility and participation in TANF and FSP for married-parent families. Our analysis reveals the complexities in conducting such an analysis, including identifying appropriate data for eligibility and participation, defining family types, defining appropriate units for the analyses, and identifying methodological approaches to learn more about why eligibility and participation rates differ among the different family types.

We find that eligibility and participation rates in TANF and FSP are considerably lower for married-parent families than for single-parent families, as shown in Figure 1. Rates for cohabiting families generally lie between those of single- and married-parent families. Demographic characteristics and financial circumstances explain much of the difference in eligibility rates between married- and single-parent families. However, demographic characteristics, financial circumstances, and state program rules explain little of the observed differences in participation rates across the two family types.

This analysis suggests several avenues for further research. For instance, given the large unexplained differences that persist in participation rates between married- and single-parent families, it would be useful to learn why married-parent families have lower participation rates than single-parent families, even after controlling for numerous demographic and financial characteristics. One explanation may be related to differences in state policies for married- and single-parent households. Although we have included several policy variables that vary across states in our models, our models are unable to capture the effects of policies that differ for married- and single-parent families, but that do not vary across states. For instance, the work participation requirement for TANF is 55 hours for two-parent families compared with 30 hours for single-parent families. Although such differences may influence the participation decisions of these family types, we cannot capture them in our models if there is no variation in the rules across states. Additionally there may be unobserved state differences in the implementation of policies that affect married families differently than single families, and it may be useful to talk with key state officials to learn about how these policies are actually implemented for the two family types. It would also be valuable to understand the relative importance of such factors as stigma and families' failure to realize that they are eligible compared with factors that reflect the families' optimism about their future income or employment prospects. To learn more about this subject, as a starting point, it may be useful to conduct interviews or focus groups with small numbers of eligible married-parent families about their reasons for not participating in TANF and FSP. Finally, more research can be conducted on cohabiting households, who formed about 7 percent of all low-income households in the CPS.


Where to?

Top of Page | Contents

Main Page of Report | Contents of Report

Home Pages:
Human Services Policy (HSP)
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation ASPE)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)