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

08/01/2000

A fair number of families leaving welfare returned quite quickly, within one quarter, according to administrative data from eight reports. The percentage receiving TANF one quarter, or three months, after exit ranged from 5 to 20 percent of leavers, as shown in Table 4A. Note that leavers in these studies are defined as those who remain off welfare for at least two months; the recidivism rates would be even higher if the study population included those with exits of one month or less.

Over the next three months, an additional 4 to 7 percent of leavers returned in most states, bringing the total proportion of former recipients receiving AFDC/TANF to between 10 and 28 percent at two quarters after exit. There was a small increase over the next six months, resulting in rates of welfare receipt of between 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 measured program participation by month, while others measured 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.

Recidivism rates appear somewhat lower in the 1998 cohorts as compared with the earlier cohorts, in each of the four studies reporting such data (see (Table 4B). The change was relatively small; in Wisconsin, for example, 25 percent of the 1998 cohort returned to TANF at least once in the first year after exit, compared to 29 percent of the 1995 cohort. In two states, Illinois and Washington, the 1998 cohorts had higher employment rates as well as lower recidivism rates. In Arizona and Wisconsin, however, the reductions in recidivism occurred despite flat or declining employment rates across the early and late cohorts of leavers.

The survey data on TANF receipt are fairly similar to the administrative data, with 14-19 percent of respondents reporting being back on cash assistance at the time of interview (see Table 4C). When asked if they had ever been back on welfare, however, survey respondents reported lower rates of receipt than appears true from the administrative data. This is particularly true in Missouri, where 31 percent of respondents reported ever receiving welfare over the two and a half years since exit, compared to a 44 percent rate based on an analysis of administrative data on the survey respondents. Some of this difference may be due to stigma about welfare receipt and respondents' reluctance to report that they were back on assistance.

Of those who returned to TANF, at least one half did so because of job-related reasons, such as job loss, or decreases in work hours or wages, according to survey respondents across three of the states (see Table 4C). Other common reasons for returning to TANF were divorce or separation from a partner, pregnancy or birth of a new child, re-compliance with program regulations, loss of other income, problems with child care, and problems with health or medical benefits. This latter issue touches on one of the research questions explored by leavers studies, that is, the extent to which families leaving cash assistance have health insurance coverage through Medicaid or through private health insurance.

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