Final Synthesis Report of Findings from ASPE "Leavers" Grants. Returns to TANF


Despite the relatively high employment rates shown earlier, a sizeable minority of TANF exiters return to cash assistance in the first year after leaving. Figure IV.1 shows the range of these results across studies by quarter after exit using administrative data.

Figure IV.1:
Percent of Single-Parent Welfare Leavers Returning to TANF

Figure IV.1: Percent of Single-Parent Welfare Leavers Returning to TANF

Notes: The graph shows the minimum, maximum, and median TANF return rates as reported across the studies. The shaded box represents the range in which the middle 50% of reported TANF return rates fall. Not all studies provide data for all post-exit quarters. See table IV.1 for more information.

In the second, third, and fourth quarter after exit, the median percentage of families returning to TANF is 15, 18, and 19 percent respectively. However, there is variation across sites (Table IV.1).18 The highest rates of return in the third and fourth quarters after exit are in Iowa and Cuyahoga County, where about a quarter of leavers return to cash assistance. South Carolina and Florida have the lowest percentage of leavers returning in these quarters.

Table IV.1
Percent of Single-Parent Leavers Returning to TANF: Adminstrative Data


Exit Cohort Quarter Relative to Exit (%) Receipt Any Time in Year After Exit
Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4


1Q98 5 15 21 20 28
District of Columbia1,2 4Q98 7 13 17 19 21


2Q97 7 14 13 11 25


1Q98 3 10 14 14 22 4


3Q97 - 4Q98 16 19 18 16 29


2Q99 6 15 22 24 30


Dec 1998 - Mar 1999 3 5 11 16 16 19


4Q96 13 18 21 21 29

New York

1Q97 n.a n.a n.a 19 n.a

South Carolina2

Oct 1998 - Mar 1999 3 9 12 11 17


4Q97 8 14 16 16 23


4Q97 19 22 22 20 36

Cuyahoga Co.

3Q98 21 24 25 25 38

Bay Area

4Q98 19 21 23 n.a n.a

1Quarterly data calculated from public use files.
2Results for all cases, not just for single-parent cases.
3Data for month after exit, not quarter.
4Results for all who exited in 1998.
5Q1 Figure represents month 3 after exit.
Source: See Appendix B for a complete listing of the leavers studies referenced.

In most of the studies, returns to TANF increase over the first four quarters after exit. However, some report relatively high returns even in the first post-exit quarter. For example, Wisconsin, Cuyahoga County and the Bay Area study all report return rates around 20 percent in the first quarter after exit. Other studies report relatively low return rates in the first quarter. While some of these are reporting monthly and not quarterly rates, the 3 percent returns in Georgia and South Carolina are quarterly. In most studies, the rates of return are more closely bunched in the second through third quarters.19

There are indications that in many areas, fairly steady TANF participation rates in the second through fourth quarters after exit mask a fair degree of cycling families returning to TANF and then leaving again. Eight of the fourteen studies report the percentage of families who ever received TANF in the year after initially exiting. These numbers range from 17 to 38 percent, with the median at 27 percent. In all of these, a higher percent of leavers ever returned to TANF over the course of the year than are on at the end of the year: in most cases a much higher percent. This indicates a large degree of movement off and on TANF. For example, Arizona reports that 28 percent of leavers in the study cohort return to TANF over the year after exit, but only 16 percent were on in the twelfth month after leaving. This means almost half of those who return to TANF at some point in the year after exit have left again before the twelfth month.

Using the limited information available, it is interesting to examine how return rates vary by the time limit policy in each of the study areas. As noted earlier, families may leave earlier in states with shorter time limits compared with states with the 60-month time limit. This could mean families are less likely to return because they have already hit their time limit or want to save up remaining months. It could also mean families are more likely to return if they were less prepared for the labor market when they exited TANF. In the studies examined here, there is some indications that places with shorter time limits (less than the federal 60 month limit) have lower returns in the fourth quarter. For example, Florida, Massachusetts, and South Carolina all have shorter than 5-year time limits and rates of return in the fourth quarter ranging from 11 to 16 percent. Ohio also has a shorter time limit, but Cuyahoga County's rate of return in the fourth quarter is the highest of the studies examined, 25 percent. 20

Administrative data have some advantages over survey data for examining program participation, in that survey data are susceptible to faulty respondent memory and misinterpretation of questions. However, survey data on program participation does have the advantage of capturing benefit receipt for those who have moved out-of-state and no longer appear in the original states administrative data.

Seven studies report results on returns to TANF from their surveys of former recipients (Table IV.2). These results for TANF receipt at the time of the survey (which ranges from 6 to 34 months after exit) are generally comparable to the administrative data results for the same time period. Five of the studies also report the percent returning at any time in the year after exit. These results show that returns since exit are higher than returns at the time of the survey. They reinforce the finding that while a significant percentage of leavers return to welfare, many who return exit again in the time period prior to the survey. Of all the surveys, Missouri allows the longest-term picture of returns to TANF, by administering their survey two and a half years after the initial exit. At this time, 14 percent of leavers report they are back on TANF in Missouri and 31 percent say they received TANF at some point since exit.

Table IV.2:
Percent of Single-Parent Leavers Returning to TANF: Survey Data


Exit Cohort Timing of Survey Post Exit Since Exit (%) At Time of Survey (%)

District of Columbia2

4Q98 ~ 12 months 25 19 1


Dec. 1998 6 - 8 months 19 14


2Q99 8 - 12 months 28 21 1


Dec 1998 - Mar 1999 ~ 10 months 18 10


4Q98 26 - 24 months 31 14

South Carolina2

Oct 1998-Mar 1999 12 months n.a. 7


Oct. 1998 6 - 8 months n.a 19

1Month prior to survey.
2Results for all cases, not just for single-parent cases.
Source: See Appendix B for a complete listing of the leavers studies referenced.