The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), passed in 1996, replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants to states. Since that time, the federal cash assistance caseloads have dropped by over 50 percent, from 4.4 million in August, 1996 to 2.1 million in March, 2001. There is interest at the federal, state, and local levels about the well-being of the unprecedented number of families that have left welfare:
- Are leavers working?
- Are they receiving support through other public assistance programs?
- Do they have the financial wherewithal to provide for themselves and their children?
- Are they and their children suffering hardships from hunger to homelessness?
To help address these questions, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the United States the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) provided funding to select states and large counties to conduct studies of families that have left the welfare rolls. This report reviews and synthesizes key findings from fifteen ASPE-funded leaver studies. The studies we reviewed here are based in the following locations: Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin, Cuyahoga County (Ohio), Los Angeles county (California), and the Bay Area, a consortium of San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties (California).
What are the ASPE Funded Leaver Studies and How are They Different from Earlier Studies?
A host of states and policy researchers have examined the well-being of families leaving welfare in the post-reform era (1). These studies vary widely in the populations they study, how they define a welfare leaver, the outcomes that they examine and how those outcomes are measured, and in their methodological rigor. Consequently, it is difficult to use these studies to draw general inferences about the status of TANF leavers nationwide.
In order to obtain a broader national picture of how welfare leavers are faring in the post-reform era and to facilitate cross-state comparisons, ASPE awarded grants in September, 1998, to ten states, two large counties, and a consortium of counties to conduct leaver studies under a set of common guidelines. Grants for state and county leaver studies were funded out of an earmarked Congressional appropriation to study the outcomes of welfare reform. ASPE also provided funding for additional leaver studies from additional Congressional appropriations.
ASPE worked with its grantees to help make the leaver studies somewhat comparable to one another and encouraged them to report results using comparable definitions, for comparable populations, and comparable post-exit intervals. For example, ASPE developed a set of common measures for reporting findings from administrative data. Further, ASPE encouraged researchers to ask similar questions in their surveys. Finally, ASPE provided substantial amounts of technical assistance to its grantees to assist them in adhering to rigorous methodological standards.
In general, the ASPE-funded leaver studies follow these guidelines:
- They focus on cohorts of leavers, defined as all families that stopped receiving welfare during a particular quarter. In most cases, a family had to remain off welfare for two consecutive months in order to be considered a leaver. Similarly, ASPE encouraged its grantees to present at least some findings for single-parent families.
- For each cohort of leavers, the studies use administrative records to examine leavers subsequent use of cash assistance under TANF and their participation in the Food Stamp and Medicaid programs. Some studies have broader administrative data on leavers participation in additional social support programs, such as child care subsidies and child support, as well as data from state child welfare agencies.
- Almost all studies link their administrative program data with data on employment and earnings from the states Unemployment Insurance system.
- The studies supplement their administrative data using surveys of TANF leavers. Generally the survey samples are drawn from a single cohort of leavers. These surveys provide richer information about families than can be garnered from administrative data.
Note that these leavers studies are not rigorous evaluations of welfare reform. Rather, they are useful tools for monitoring the well-being of families that have received TANF and subsequently left the rolls. They can help policy makers identify the range of problems that families who have left welfare are facing. The ongoing capacity built by states and the research community will hopefully provide a baseline for formulating and evaluating future reforms.
Issues in Comparing and Synthesizing the ASPE-funded Leaver Studies
Even with all of ASPEs efforts to increase comparability, there remain important differences across the ASPE-funded leaver studies that should be kept in mind when comparing them and drawing general conclusions from them. For example, the status of welfare leavers is likely affected by the welfare policies states have adopted, the economic opportunities prevailing in the states, and even the characteristics of welfare recipients themselves.
In addition, the leaver studies do not all focus on the same time period. Indeed, some studies focus on leavers from late 1998 while others examine leavers from late 1996/early 1997. The survey components of the leaver studies also cover different periods of time after leaving. For example, one leaver study interviews leavers over two years after exit from welfare while others conduct interviews six months after exit.
Further, although the survey instruments generally gather similar information, each was developed by a separate team of researchers. Each survey focuses on topics of interest in a particular state or locality, leading to differences in measured outcomes. In addition, the reliability of survey findings are affected by how well survey respondents represent the population of welfare leavers. Response rates to the surveys we include in this synthesis range from 51 to 76 percent (2). While not a guarantee of representative findings, higher response rates generally indicate more reliable results (3).
Finally, there are some small variations in how the studies define leavers and the types of leavers studied. For example, most but not all studies require a family to remain off welfare for two months to be considered a leaver (4). Further, some studies focus exclusively on single parent welfare leavers while others include information on two-parent and, in a few studies, child-only cases. A summary of the types of data used, the time periods analyzed, the study populations, and technical details of surveys appear in Appendix A.
Outline of Synthesis
This synthesis of ASPE-funded leaver studies begins by discussing differences in the policies states have pursued, their economic climate, and the demographic characteristics of their welfare populations. It then discusses the findings from the leaver studies focusing on:
(1)the employment and earnings of leavers;
(2)leavers program participation;
(4)the material hardships leavers face; and
(5)issues relating to child well-being for leavers.
Many studies report administrative data findings from multiple cohorts of welfare leavers. Where this is the case, the focus is on the most recent cohort, especially when there are comparable survey data available for that cohort (5).
The general approach to this synthesis is to focus on the most comparable elements of the leaver studies. Data are summarized in figures which appear within the chapters; more detailed information is presented in tables which appear at the end of the chapter. Whenever possible, findings are presented for single-parent leavers. In addition to using data from published reports, the synthesis also uses public use data files from several sites (6). These public use data can be used to examine key outcomes for special subgroups of leavers that may not have been presented in published reports and to insure that these sub-groups are roughly comparable across sites. Examples of sub-groups analyzed in this synthesis include families that remain off welfare (continuous leavers) as well as leavers who are not working . Finally, several studies report findings for these and other sub-groups in their published reports. This enables us to examine a limited number of outcomes by race and ethnicity as well as for voluntary and "involuntary leavers"families that reached time limits or were sanctioned off welfare.
1.Many of these studies are reviewed in Brauner and Loprest (1999), GAO (1999), Acs and Loprest (2000), Isaacs and Lyon (2000), and DHHS/ASPE (2000).
2.Florida's survey had a response rate of 23 percent. Thus, its survey findings were not included in this final synthesis.
3.To assess the representativeness of their survey findings, most ASPE-funded leaver studies perform "non-response" analyses.
4.Arizona uses a one month requirement throughout its study but presents supplementary findings using a two month definition. In this synthesis report, we focus on the two month findings from Arizona for comparability. DC requires a leaver to remain off welfare one full calendar month.
5.Interestingly, we find few differences in outcomes across early and late cohorts within the same study area.
6. The synthesis uses public use administrative and survey data files from Arizona, DC and Iowa, and survey data from Massachusetts and Washington.