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.