A Cross-State Examination of Families Leaving Welfare: Findings from the ASPE-Funded Leavers Studies. Cross-State Comparisons

08/01/2000

The full set of studies reviewed in this paper are from a diverse set of states and counties, including: Arizona, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New York, Washington, Wisconsin, and Cuyahoga County in Ohio, Los Angeles County in California, and San Mateo County in California. Before examining outcomes across the various sites, it is important to acknowledge how these differences can be driven by differences in study methodologies, state policies, and underlying economic and demographic conditions.

Rather than impose a uniform study design across the various sites, ASPE funded a set of locally designed studies of welfare outcomes. While most studies examined both "early" and "late" cohorts of leavers, the studies reviewed in this paper include cohorts that exited as early as July 1995 and as late as December 1998 (see Table 1). Most studies used both administrative and survey data, but the study design varied across grantees. For example, survey sample size ranged from 300 cases to over 4,000 cases (with most falling between 600 and 1200 cases), and time of interview varied from 6 months to 36 months after exit from cash assistance. Most grantees conducted mixed mode surveys, consisting of telephone interviews of between 20 and 40 minutes for the majority of households, supplemented by in-person follow-up for those who could not be reached by telephone. Three of the four survey reports reviewed here achieved response rates of 72-75 percent; one study, however, had a response rate of only 51 percent. Finally, all the studies examined outcomes across a broad array of areas, including employment and earnings, program participation, health insurance, child care arrangements, household income, experiences of material hardship, and general child and family well-being. Certain studies, however, emphasized some of these areas more than others, and the exact wording of items varied across surveys.

Although each ASPE-funded grantee followed its own proposed study methodology, certain steps were taken by ASPE to promote comparability among the studies. Chief among these was developing consensus around 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. A second step toward comparability was to encourage researchers to report administrative data outcomes for "single-parent" leavers, in addition to reporting them for the grantee's entire study population  which for some grantees consisted of single-parent leavers only, but for others included small percentages of "two-parent" cases, that is, families where both parents are receiving cash assistance, as shown in Table 1.(3) Grantees also agreed to focus the main study population on cases with one or two adult recipients, excluding closures of "child-only" cases.

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. Leaving welfare may be a different experience in an urban as opposed to a rural region, in an area of high unemployment as compared to low unemployment, for a married versus a never-married recipient, and for a non-English speaking recipient compared with a fluent English speaking recipient. Although this paper focuses primarily on aggregate findings for the "average" welfare leaver in a state, it is important to recognize that outcomes vary significantly across various subgroups, and that the demographic characteristics of welfare recipients and leavers differ significantly across the various study areas.

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