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TANF "Leavers", Applicants, and Caseload Studies: Summary of Research on Welfare Outcomes Funded by ASPE

Publication Date




As large numbers of recipients leave the welfare rolls, there is widespread interest in their circumstances:  Are they working?  What is their income?  Are they returning to welfare?  Are they receiving assistance and supportive services through other programs?

In September 1998, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), Department of Health and Human Services, awarded approximately $2.9 million in grants to study the outcomes of welfare reform for individuals and families who leave the TANF program, who apply for cash welfare but are never enrolled because of non­financial eligibility requirements or diversion programs, and/or who appear to be eligible but are not enrolled.  The grants were awarded to ten states and three large counties or consortia of counties under a May 1998 competitive grant announcement.  A grant was also made to South Carolina under a different program announcement to expand an on-going project to include a similar study of families leaving TANF.(1)

Ten of the FY 1998 ASPE-funded grantees have released interim reports that use linked administrative data sets to track families who left welfare in late 1996 or 1997.  Preliminary findings from these administrative data linkages are presented in this paper, which also includes findings from an administrative data study of AFDC leavers in Wisconsin funded by ASPE through the Institute for Research on Poverty.  These eleven reports provide interesting preliminary findings about former AFDC/TANF recipients in the areas of employment, earnings, returns to cash assistance, and program participation in Medicaid and food stamps.  More comprehensive findings, including information gathered through surveys of former TANF recipients, will be presented in the grantees' final reports, forthcoming over the next twelve months.(2)  This paper expands and updates findings from earlier reviews of a subset of these interim reports (DHHS/ASPE, August 1999; DHHS/ASPE, October 1999).

Cross-State Comparisons

The eleven studies included in this review include: Arizona; Cuyahoga County in Ohio; the District of Columbia; Georgia; Illinois; Los Angeles in California; Missouri; New York; San Mateo County in California; Washington; and Wisconsin.  Although it is difficult to compare findings across studies, comparisons among these ASPE-funded studies are facilitated by the adoption of a common definition of the "leaver" study population as "all cases that leave cash assistance for at least two months."  This definition excludes cases that re-open within one or two months, because such cases are more likely closed due to administrative "churning" than to true exits from welfare.  For the most part, the studies focus on single, female adult parents, although some grantees define the study population to include a small percentage of fathers and/or other adult relatives, as shown in Table 1.


Table 1.
Cross-Grantee Comparison of Study Populations
Grantee Cohort Date of TANF Impl. AFDC/
Leavers include: Leavers exclude:
Mos. Off Only Single Only Parents Only Females Sanctioned Cases Partial (Adult Sanction) Closed Child- only Additional exclusions:
Wisconsin 8/95 - 7/96 9/96 AFDC 2 x x x x     Adults over 65 or without children
Cuyahoga Q3 1996 10/96 AFDC 2 x x x   *    
Los Angeles Q3 1996 11/96 AFDC 2 x x x        
Washington Q4 1996 1/97 AFDC 2 x* x          
Missouri Q4 1996 12/96 AFDC/
2 x*       x    
San Mateo Q4 1996 11/96 AFDC/
2 x* x     *   *  
Arizona Q4 1996 > 10/96 > early TANF 2* x* x   x     Tribal jurisdiction
Illinois Q3 1997 7/97 early TANF 2 x*     x x    
Georgia Q1 1997 1/97 early TANF 2 x     x x   *  
New York Q1 1997 12/96 early TANF 2 x* x         Adults without Social Security number (2%); closed due to move to other state (3%); without children
D. C. Q4 1997 3/97 TANF 2   x          


The leaver population includes "sanctioned cases" if the state imposes full sanctions that close the entire case.  Eight of the study sites have partial (adult) sanctions, where the adults are sometimes sanctioned off the case while the children remain.  The adult leaver is included in the study population of leavers in three studies (Georgia, Illinois, and Missouri), excluded in three studies (Los Angeles, New York, and Washington state) and studied as a separate population in two studies (Cuyahoga and San Mateo counties).

*  Although the findings here are for single adult leavers off assistance for two months, the grantees' individual written reports provide additional findings, including one-month leavers (Arizona); two-parent leavers (Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, New York, San Mateo and Washington); adult leavers whose children remain on assistance (Cuyahoga and San Mateo); and closed child-only cases (Georgia and San Mateo).

In addition to using a similar definition of a "leaver," the ASPE-funded studies examine a similar time period, generally tracking families leaving AFDC/TANF in late 1996 or early 1997.  The Wisconsin study, however, looks at an earlier time period, while the District of Columbia study looks at a later time period.  All studies are in the process of collecting data on at least one additional cohort of leavers who left welfare after full implementation of TANF.  This summary of findings from the interim reports, however, focuses on the early leavers — those who left welfare in the last months of AFDC, the early months of TANF implementation, or during the transition between the two programs.

Cross-state differences in TANF policies are likely to cause differences in the leaver populations across states.  A state with a policy of sanctioning non-compliant families off TANF, for example, is likely to have a different leaver population than a state that imposes partial sanctions that do not result in a case closure.  Also, the level of earnings which leads to case closure differs from state to state, depending on maximum benefits and earnings disregard policies.  Work requirements, time limits, and differences in Medicaid and other program policies also contribute to the varied experiences of leavers in different parts of the country.

Finally, caution must be made in interpreting cross-site differences because of differences in the underlying economic, social and demographic conditions of the states and counties under study.

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Interestingly, despite the many differences in studies, the preliminary findings from the eleven studies remain quite consistent, particularly in the areas of employment, earnings, and recidivism.

Employment Rates

About 45 to 65 percent of former TANF recipients were working after leaving TANF, according to administrative data from ten reports.  (See Table 2.)


Table 2.
Percentage of Leavers Employed
Grantee Exit Qtr 1st Qtr post exit 2nd Qtr post exit 3rd Qtr post exit 4th Qtr post exit Ever employed within 1 year Employed all 4 quarters
Los Angeles 45.9 47.2 45.5 46.3 46.6   34.8
San Mateo 50.5 49.6 49.9 48.4 50.3 67.1  
New York 50.0 50.0 49.0 48.0 48.0 62.0 40.0
Washington 55.0 52.0 52.0 55.0 56.0 68.2  
Illinois 54.6 53.3 50.4 51.9 53.2    
Arizona 60.9 58.2 55.8 55.1 55.4 74.7  
Missouri 62.5 58.4 57.8 58.7 58.1    
Cuyahoga   59.3 54.2 55.8 56.8 71.7 40.3
Wisconsin 63.7 63.2 61.5 61.3 61.6 75.3  
Georgia   64.2 60.1 59.2 53.3 73.9  


A recipient is considered "employed" if she or he has any earnings in UI-covered employment within the state, with the following exceptions: the Cuyahoga and Los Angeles studies require a minimum of $100 per quarter, and the Washington study counts earnings reported to the welfare system in addition to earnings in the UI system.

Most studies reported employment rates between 50 and 60 percent one quarter after exit, although employment rates were below 50 percent in one site (Los Angeles, based on preliminary data), and above 60 percent in two sites (Wisconsin and Georgia).  There was a slight dip in employment rates in the second quarter after exit in most sites.  In half the sites, this trend was reversed, and employment rates returned to initial levels by the fourth quarter after exit.

Over the twelve-month period, some former recipients lost their jobs, while others found new employment, resulting in cumulative employment rates of 62 to 75 percent, measured as those who were ever employed within the first twelve months of exit.

Only about 35 to 40 percent of leavers were employed in all four quarters, according to the three studies reporting this statistic.

Employment rates were defined in a similar manner across the ASPE-funded studies, as the percentage of leavers with positive earnings in the quarterly earnings records maintained by the state's unemployment insurance (UI) program.  Although most jobs are covered by the state UI systems, some jobs are omitted, such as self-employment, employment in the military or federal government, certain agricultural employment, informal employment, and jobs over state boundaries.  These employment rates, therefore, are likely to be under-estimates of employment rates as compared to employment information gathered through surveys of former recipients.


Mean quarterly earnings in the quarter immediately following exit from TANF ranged from $2,185 to $3,414, according to administrative data from the Unemployment Insurance system for leavers in nine study areas.  (See Table 3.)


Table 3.
Mean and Median Quarterly Earnings of Employed Leavers
Grantee 1st Qtr
before exit
Exit Qtr 1st Qtr
post exit
2nd Qtr
post exit
3rd Qtr
post exit
4th Qtr
post exit
Missouri   $2,130 $2,185 $2,346 $2,372 $2,685
Georgia     $2,193 $2,272 $2,549 $2,389
Arizona $1,277 $2,276 $2,415 $2,497 $2,519 $2,862
Wisconsin   $2,155 $2,440 $2,509 $2,563 $2,686
Washington $1,598 $2,448 $2,722 $2,862 $2,938 $3,196
Cuyahoga     $2,756 $2,756 $2,891 $2,952
New York   $3,067 $3,393 $3,402 $3,877 $3,602
San Mateo $1,998 $3,056 $3,124 $3,407 $3,457 $3,647
Los Angeles $2,876 $3,245 $3,414 $3,387 $3,521 3,576
Missouri   $1,913 $1,996 $2,171 $2,200 $2,535
Georgia     $2,051 $2,097 $2,384 $2,218
Illinois $1,569 $2,214 $2,162 $2,479 $2,624 $2,660
Arizona $1,024 $2,179 $2,371 $2,351 $2,389 $2,754
Wisconsin   $2,116 $2,383 $2,437 $2, 460 $2,602
Washington $1,279 $2,299 $2,526 $2,672 $2,646 $2,923
Cuyahoga     $2,587 $2,620 $2,729 $2,776
San Mateo $1,598 $2,815 $3,104 $3,290 $3,521 $3,572
Los Angeles $2,695 $3,108 $3,248 $3,156 $3,303 $3,290


Excludes leavers without earnings in the quarter.  Earnings are reported in nominal dollars, with the exception of San Mateo (November 1998 $).  Illinois did not report mean earnings; New York did not report median earnings; and the District of Columbia did not report any earnings data.

Median quarterly income ranged from $1,996 to $3,248.  In every location, earnings steadily rose over the course of the year following exit.  Earnings were slightly higher in New York, San Mateo County, and Los Angeles.

Earnings were measured for those leavers that found employment (i.e., leavers with positive earnings in a quarter).  Grantees generally reported earnings in current or nominal dollars, except for San Mateo County, which presented earnings in November 1998 dollars.


Data from eight reports suggest that between 5 and 20 percent of leavers were receiving welfare again one quarter after exit, as shown in Table 4.  These leavers generally re-entered in the second or third month, since cases that re-open after one or two months were excluded from the study population.


Table 4.
Percentage of Adult Leavers Receiving TANF
Grantee 1st Qtr
(3 mos)
post exit
2nd Qtr
(6 mos)
post exit
3rd Qtr
(9 mos)
post exit
4th Qtr
(12 mos)
post exit
Ever receiving
within 1 year
Georgia     14.3 13.4  
Arizona (m) 4.8 13.6 17.6 17.2 28.4
D. C. (m) 5.6 10.4 14.0 16.5  
San Mateo (m) 7.7 12.1 11.6 12.3 22.7
Illinois (m) 16.1 19.4 18.1 17.1  
New York (m)       17.0  
New York       19.0  
Washington 12.0 19.0 22.0 23.0 29.8
Missouri 12.4 18.6 20.8 20.6  
Wisconsin 14.3 19.3 18.6 17.0 27.6
Cuyahoga 20.4 27.5 29.6 28.7 35.3


Grantees measuring program participation by month — denoted by (m) — are more likely to report lower program participation than grantees measuring participation over a three-month quarter.

Also, there is a potential one-month discrepancy in how grantees define months and quarters "post exit," because some grantees define "month of exit" as the last month of benefit receipt, while others define it as the first month without cash assistance.

The proportion of former recipients receiving AFDC/TANF increased to between 10 and 28 percent at two quarters after exit, and then rose more slowly in most areas, reaching 12 to 29 percent one year after exit.  Because some people come back to welfare for a few months and then leave again, the proportion that ever returned for at least one month over the first twelve months after exit was somewhat higher, ranging from 23 to 35 percent.

Some of the variation in receipt of cash assistance is due to measurement differences.  Most importantly, some grantees measure program participation by month, while others measure it as receipt over any of three months in a quarter.  Quarterly measures are likely to result in higher participation rates because of the longer time period for observing benefit receipt.


Rates of Medicaid enrollment for former AFDC/TANF recipients varied more across grantees than the employment, earnings, and recidivism findings.  Three months after exit, the enrollment rate for adult leavers across the nine studies that reported this measure ranged from 24 to 76 percent, but was more typically 35 to 60 percent.  (See Table 5.)


Table 5.
Percentage of Leavers Enrolled in Medicaid
Grantee Exit Quarter
1st Qtr
(3 mos)
post exit
2nd Qtr
(6 mos)
post exit
3rd Qtr
(9 mos)
post exit
4th Qtr
(12 mos)
post exit
Ever receiving
within 1 year
San Mateo (m)   24.4 28.2 22.9 23.7 47.1
 – Children covered   25.9 30.6 26.0 26.2 48.4
Missouri 36.2 34.9 25.9 19.6 15.2  
 – Children covered 37.7 40.8 38.9 37.6 36.8  
D.C. – Anyone on case (m) 97.2 35.4 37.7 36.3 37.9  
New York         35.0  
 – Children covered         34.0  
 – Anyone on case         45.0  
 – Anyone on case (m)         40.0  
Cuyahoga   41.4 41.7 39.6 37.7 55.3
Washington 99.0 54.0 49.0 46.0 43.0  
Illinois (m) 43.5 57.3 54.0 47.8 40.0  
Arizona (m)   57.8 54.2 49.3 46.5 84.9
Wisconsin   75.9 69.4 66.0 63.1 81.5


These rates measure enrollment of the single adult head who left TANF, except where noted as rate of leavers whose "children are covered" or where "anyone on case" (child or adult) is covered.  Washington data are not available for Q4 1996 leavers; data shown here are for Q4 1997 leavers.

Also, as noted in Table 4, measures of participation by month — denoted by (m) — are likely to be lower than measures of participation over a three-month quarter; and "month of exit" may mean first month without cash assistance, or last month receiving cash assistance.

Among those grantees that reported Medicaid enrollment among both adult leavers and their children, enrollment was higher for children in one site (Missouri) but, surprisingly, was not significantly different in the other two (San Mateo and New York).  In some study areas, participation in Medicaid declined over time in the year after exit from AFDC/TANF, dropping by as much as 10 to 20 percentage points for adult leavers between the first and fourth quarters after exit.  Rates remained relatively stable, however, in three of the studies.  A substantially higher percentage of leavers were ever enrolled in Medicaid than were enrolled in each of the four quarters.  In Arizona, for example, administrative data show that only about 50 percent of leavers were enrolled in Medicaid in any particular month, but 85 percent were enrolled at some point in the first year after exit.

A number of factors contribute to the diversity in the Medicaid findings.  The effect of differences in unit of analysis and time period are evident in New York, which reported four different rates, ranging from 34 to 45 percent, depending on whether enrollment was measured for adults, children or any family member, and whether measured by month or quarter.  In San Mateo, the Medicaid enrollment was limited to data within the county of San Mateo, which might help explain why these rates were lower than those that tracked recipients within an entire state.  In addition, both TANF and Medicaid eligibility rules and application policies also differ across the various states.

A few studies reported Medicaid enrollment among "continuous" leavers, that is, leavers who do not return to cash assistance.  (See Table 6.)


Table 6.
Percentage of "Continuous Leavers" Who Are Enrolled in Medicaid
Grantee Exit Quarter
1st Qtr
post exit
2nd Qtr
post exit
3rd Qtr
post exit
4th Qtr
post exit
Ever receiving
within 1 year
Cuyahoga           31.0
D.C  – Anyone on case (m)   30.4 28.8 24.9 23.8  
Illinois (m) 47.4 48.3 39.4 32.1 22.8  
Washington   55.0 45.0 40.0 36.0  


Washington data are not available for Q4 1996 leavers; data shown here are for Q4 1997 leavers.

Also, as noted in Table 4, measures of participation by month — denoted by (m) — are likely to be lower than measures of participation over a three-month quarter; and "month of exit" may mean first month without cash assistance, or last month receiving cash assistance.

In general, Medicaid enrollment is lower among continuous leavers.  In Illinois, for example, 23 percent of continuous leavers were enrolled in Medicaid four quarters after exit, as compared with 40 percent of all leavers.  One reason for higher enrollment among all leavers is that some of them are re-enrolled in Medicaid at the time of their return to TANF.  In addition, it may be true that continuous leavers have higher rates of private health insurance coverage than other leavers, but such information is not available through administrative data.

Food Stamps

Most studies found that between one-third and one-half of former recipients of cash assistance received food stamps immediately after exit.  (See Table 7.)


Table 7.
Percentage of Leavers Receiving Food Stamps
Grantee Exit Quarter/
1st Qtr
post exit
2nd Qtr
post exit
3rd Qtr
post exit
4th Qtr
post exit
Ever receiving
within 1 year
All Leavers
San Mateo   9.3 15.4 13.4 14.1 27.5
New York         26.0  
New York (m)         21.0  
D. C. (m) 69.6 33.9 35.0 34.2 34.3  
Illinois (m)   35.5 39.4 37.5 34.5  
Arizona (m)   38.0 37.3 36.7 34.2 67.2
Cuyahoga   42.5 42.2 41.2 39.4 57.3
Washington 91.0 46.0 42.0 40.0 36.0  
Wisconsin 89.7 51.3 45.8 42.5 40.0 62.8
Missouri 63.0 57.3 46.7 42.7 40.1  
Continuous Leavers (who have not returned to TANF):
Cuyahoga           34.7
Illinois   21.8 22.0 22.7 19.6  
D.C. 68.6 29.4 27.1 23.1 20.4  


Washington data are not available for Q4 1996 leavers; data shown here are for Q4 1997 leavers.

Also, as noted in Table 4, measures of participation by month — denoted by (m) — are likely to be lower than measures of participation over a three-month quarter; and "month of exit" may mean first month without cash assistance, or last month receiving cash assistance.

By one year after exit, these participation rates generally fell to between one-fifth and two-fifths.  One exception was the San Mateo study, which found only 10 to 15 percent of former TANF recipients in the food stamp administrative data base in any quarter.  In general, the percentage of leavers participating in the Food Stamp program appeared to be lower than the percentage who received Medicaid.

Among the few studies reporting food stamps participation rates for continuous leavers, those who did not return to TANF reported rates of only 20 to 30 percent.  Participation rates in the Food Stamp program are more noticeably affected by the unit of measurement than other program participation rates, probably reflecting the short-term nature of food stamp participation for many households.  Participation rates one year after exit, for example, were 21 to 35 percent when measured monthly, compared to rates of 26 to 40 percent among grantees measuring program participation across a three-month quarter.  The exception is San Mateo, which measured low rates despite observing participation over a three-month quarter.  Possible explanations for the low measure in San Mateo include: higher incomes among the leaver population (because eligibility limits and maximum benefits are higher than average in California), less active food stamp outreach, or technical measurement challenges with the administrative data.

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Findings from Other Studies

The employment, recidivism, and program participation findings summarized in this paper are generally consistent with findings from other studies of leavers.  Comparisons across studies are problematic, however, because of the many differences in study populations, time periods studied, sources of data, response rates, and research methodologies.  Both the General Accounting Office and the Urban Institute have produced summary findings of state-funded studies of leavers, which present findings and discuss the challenges of cross-state comparisons.(3)

Another source of comparison is an August 1999 Urban Institute report which uses data from the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF) to study former welfare recipients.  Again, direct comparisons are difficult because of the difference in data source (surveys rather than administrative records) and in study population (national sample of anyone who left welfare between 1995 and 1997 and remained off welfare at time of interview in 1997 compared with a state sample of leavers who remained off welfare for at least two months).  With these caveats in mind, it is interesting that the Urban Institute study found that of those continuous leavers not receiving welfare benefits at the time of the interview, 61 percent were employed and an additional 14 percent were not working but had a spouse or partner employed.  In addition, 31 percent of all former recipients not receiving TANF were participating in the Food Stamp program.  A third of this population was enrolled in the Medicaid program, and nearly half had children enrolled in Medicaid.  Finally, of all families who left welfare between 1995 and 1997, 29 percent had returned to welfare by the time of the interview.

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Reports on ASPE-Funded Welfare Outcomes Studies

Some of these reports can be accessed at: Reports.



Westra, K. & Routley, J. (July 1999).  "Arizona Cash Assistance Exit Study:  Cases Exiting Fourth Quarter 1996."  Arizona Department of Economic Security.


Cuyahoga County:

Coulton, C. & Verma, N. (May 1999).  "Employment and Return to Public Assistance Among Single, Female Headed Families Leaving AFDC in Third Quarter, 1996, Cuyahoga County, Ohio."  Prepared for Cuyahoga Work and Training.


District of Columbia:

Loprest, P., & Acs, G. (February 2000).  "The Status of TANF Leavers in the District of Columbia:  Interim Report."  The Urban Institute.



Foster, E. M. (April 1999).  "Amended Quarterly Progress Report:  Outcomes for Single Parent Leavers by Cohort Quarter."  Georgia State University.



Julnes, G., Halter, A., Anderson, S., Frost-Kumpf, L., Schuldt, R., Staskon, F., and Ferrara, B. (March 2000).  "Illinois Study of Former TANF Clients, Interim Report:  Analysis of Administrative Data."  Institute for Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Springfield and School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Los Angeles:

Verma, N. & Goldman, B. (January 2000).  "Los Angeles County Post-TANF Tracking Project:  Quarterly Progress Report."  Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. Data are preliminary.



Ryan, S., Theilbar, M., Choi, S., Qu, J., Deng, M., and Ellebracht, L. (April 1999).  "Preliminary Outcomes for 1996 Fourth Quarter AFDC Leavers:  First Interim Report" University of Missouri-Columbia.  See also "Preliminary Outcomes for 1996 Fourth Quarter AFDC Leavers:  Revised Interim Report (September 1999).  Data reported here are from the first interim report, which reported results separately for single parents.


New York:

Rockefeller Institute, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, and the New York State Department of Labor (December 1999).  "After Welfare:  A Study of Work and Benefit Use After Case Closing."  Revised Interim Report.  See also Interim Report issued in July 1999.


San Mateo County:

Moses, A. & Macuso, D. C. (May 1999).  "Examining Circumstances of Individuals and Families Who Leave TANF:  Assessing the Validity of Administrative Data."  SPHERE Institute.



Ahn, J., Fogarty, D., Kraley, S., Lai, F., and Deppman L. (February 2000).  "A Study of Washington State TANF Departures and Welfare Reform.  Welfare Reform and Findings from Administrative Data.  Final Report."  Washington Department of Social and Health Services.



Cancian, M., Haveman, R., Kaplan, T., and Wolfe, B. (January 1999).  "Post-Exit Earnings and Benefit Receipt Among Those Who Left AFDC in Wisconsin."  Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison.  (NOTE:  Employment and program participation rates in this summary are drawn from a supplemental table provided to ASPE in June 1999.  Adjustments made to the rates in the original study made them less comparable to rates in other studies.)



1.  In FY 1999, ASPE awarded an additional $2.6 million in grants to state and county agencies to study welfare outcomes, including $1.8 million in grants for new projects (primarily focusing on welfare applicants and diversion) and $0.8 million in continuation grants.  Findings are not yet available from this second round of welfare outcomes grants.

2.  Final reports have been released by Arizona and Washington, with reports from Missouri and Illinois anticipated later in spring 2000.  See Reports for a copy of the Arizona report and others as they are available.

3.  General Accounting Office (Welfare Reform:  Information on Former Recipients' Status:  GAO/HEHS-99-48, April 1999) and the Urban Institute (Where Are They Now?  What States' Studies of People Who Left Welfare Tell Us:  A Product of Assessing the New Federalism, Series A, No. A-32, May 1999).

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)