Initial Synthesis Report of the Findings from ASPE's "Leavers" Grants. Returns to TANF


Despite the relatively high employment rates shown earlier, in most of our study areas a sizeable minority of TANF exiters return to cash assistance in the first year after leaving. In eight out of eleven areas, more than 15 percent of former recipients were again receiving TANF at the end of the first year (table V.1).(13) There is significant difference in the rate of returns across study areas. The highest rates according to administrative data were in Cuyahoga County, with 28.7 percent, and Missouri with 20.5 percent of leavers returning to cash assistance. San Mateo County had the lowest percent returning at 8.0 percent and Florida had the second lowest at 11.0 percent.


Table V.1:
Percent of Single-Parent Leavers Returning to TANF:
Administrative Data
State Exit Cohort Post- Exit Quarter (%) Receipt Any Time
in Year After Exit
Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Arizona1 1Q98 5 13 17 16 28
District of Columbia1,2 4Q98 8 13 16 19 21
Florida1 2Q97 7 14 13 11 25
Georgia 1Q97 n.a. n.a. 14 13 n.a.
Illinois1 3Q97-4Q98 16 19 18 16 29
Missouri2 4Q96 13 18 21 21 n.a.
New York 1Q97 n.a. n.a. n.a. 19 n.a.
Washington 4Q97 8 14 16 16 23
Wisconsin July 1995-June 1996 14 19 19 17 28
Cuyahoga Co. 3Q96 20 28 30 29 35
San Mateo Co.1 1997 7 9 10 8 18
1 These studies report data for month after exit, not quarter.
2 These studies report results for all cases.
Source: See Appendix B for a complete listing of the leavers studies referenced.

Despite some differences in return rates, in general, the pattern of returns to TANF is somewhat similar across study areas. The number of leavers who have returned to TANF after just one quarter, ranges from a low of 6.7 percent in San Mateo to 20.4 percent in Cuyahoga County.(14) This percentage jumps up by the end of the second quarter and remains relatively steady for the rest of the year. While a few areas have slight declines in receipt over time from the second to the fourth quarter, in general over the first year we do not observe declining returns to TANF.

There are indications that at least in some areas, these steady numbers of TANF recipients masks a fair degree of "cycling" -- families returning to TANF and then leaving again. Eight of the eleven study areas report the percentage of families who ever received TANF in the year after initially exiting. These numbers range from 18 to 35 percent. A much higher percent of leavers ever returned to TANF over the course of the year than are on at the end of the year. This indicates a degree of movement on and then off again. For example, Arizona reports that 27.7 percent of leavers in the study cohort returned to TANF over the next year, although only 15.5 percent were on in the twelfth month after leaving. This means almost half of those who returned to TANF had left again.

One difference across the eleven study areas is the time period covered. At first it seems that earlier cohorts of leavers may have greater return rates because some of the highest returns are in areas with the earliest cohort periods, Cuyahoga County (3Q96) and Wisconsin (July 1995). However, some of the more recent study periods (District of Columbia in 4Q98 and Arizona in 1Q98) have higher returns than other study areas with earlier cohorts. In fact, the levels of returns are different across areas with similar study periods. This highlights that returns to welfare are determined by a number of factors, so cross-study comparison is difficult. However, within the few studies that report multiple cohorts, no clear pattern of returns over study cohorts is observed.

Finally, using the little information we have, it is interesting to examine how return rates vary by the time limit policy in these areas. As we noted earlier, shorter time limits may encourage families to leave earlier than in other areas, possibly families that are less "prepared" to make the transition. Illinois had a 24 month time limit during the study period and had high returns and San Mateo had a 60 month time limit with low returns.(15)

The previous results are all from administrative data sources. For a number of reasons this source has advantages over survey data for examining program participation. Survey data can have errors due 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 state's administrative data. Four studies report results on returns to TANF from their surveys of former recipients (table V.2). These results are generally comparable to the administrative data results for the same time period. They reinforce that while a significant percentage return to welfare, many who return exit again in the time period prior to the survey (which ranges from 6 to 30 months after exit). Of all the surveys, Missouri allows the longest-term picture of returns to TANF, two and a half years after the initial exit. At this time, 14 percent of leavers report they are back on TANF in Missouri.


Table V.2:
Percent of Leavers Returning to TANF:
Survey Data
State Exit Cohort Timing of Survey
Post Exit
Since Exit (%) At Time of
Survey (%)
District of Columbia 4Q98 ~12 months 25 19 2
Illinois Dec. 1998 6-8 months 19 14
Missouri 4Q98 26-34 months 31 14
Washington1 Oct. 1998 6-8 months n.a. 19
1 Single-parent cases.
2 Month prior to survey.
Source: See Appendix B for a complete listing of the leavers studies referenced.