Initial Synthesis Report of the Findings from ASPE's "Leavers" Grants. VI. Material Hardship and Well-Being


Income, earnings, and program participation are important parts of economic well-being, but they do not capture overall well-being. There are many other aspects of former recipients' lives that reflect how well these families are doing. Several studies have collected information in their surveys that reflect the extent to which former recipients are experiencing particular problems of material hardship. Because those receiving TANF benefits can also experience these problems, most studies compare results for leavers before and after exit.(23) The Washington state study has a different and perhaps stronger research design for comparing former and current recipients by making the comparison for leavers to a separate sample of families still on TANF. While the questions across these surveys are not identical so comparisons need to be made carefully, the addition of these measures significantly broadens our understanding of the well-being of welfare leavers.

One area of concern is the extent to which families who left welfare are having problems with the basic necessity of having enough food. The surveys use several measures to get at the extent and severity of families experiencing food problems (table VI.1). Several ask whether leavers experienced not having enough to eat or food not lasting until the end of the month. A fairly large number of leaver families report this experience in the time after exiting, ranging from 24.0 percent in Arizona to 45.5 percent in the District of Columbia. One action families might take in this situation is to cut the size of or skip meals. Illinois and District of Columbia both report that about a quarter of leaver families say they have taken one of these actions sometimes or often. Washington reports that 43 percent of leavers report having cut the size of meals and 27 percent have skipped meals. An indicator of even more severe problems is having a child skip meals. Missouri reports 3 percent of leaver families have taken this action and Washington reports 4 percent have done so. Finally, another indicator of need is families reaching out to food banks and shelters to help with emergency provision of food. Responses range from 7.2 percent of leaver families in Missouri receiving food assistance from a church or community group to 44 percent of leavers in Washington reporting receiving food from a food bank or shelter.


Table VI.1:
Leavers' Experience of Material Hardship:
Survey Data
  Percent of Leavers Reporting Hardships (%)
Arizona1 District of Columbia Illinois Missouri Washington1
6 months pre-exit 6 months post-exit While on TANF Since exit2 6 months pre-exit Since exit2 Any time in past month Past 6 months on TANF Past 6 months- Leavers
Food Problems
Not enough to eat/ Food didn't last 30 24 n.a. 46 51 44 26 3 n.a. n.a.
Cut size of/ skipped meals sometimes or often n.a. n.a. n.a. 25 24 25 n.a. 39 4 43 4
Child skipped meal n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 3 5 5 4 5
Went without food all day at least once n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 11 15
Received food from food bank/ shelter 29 21 n.a. n.a. 15 6 12 6 7 7 35 44
Housing problems
Behind on rent/ housing costs 41 37 27 27 45 38 26 8 n.a. n.a.
Forced to move because couldn't pay housing costs 21 17 8 6 15 13   3 9 7 9
Without place to live at least once n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 11 13
Stayed in homeless shelter 4 3 5 3 4 3 n.a. 2 1
Utilities cut off because of failure to pay 18 12 7 10 6 10 27 14 n.a. 12 12
Children forced to live elsewhere 9 8 6 5 9 8 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Child in foster care n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 2 3
Unable to afford/ get medical attention 14 24 3 8 26 31 n.a. n.a. n.a.
1 Single-parent cases.
2 "Since exit" is between 6 and 8 months after exit for Illinois and approximately 12 months after exit for DC.
3 Actual question is "unable to buy enough food."
4 Percentages are for cut size of meals.  Washington asked "skipped meals" separately and found 22% for on TANF and 27% for leavers.
5 Includes households where both a child and an adult skipped meals.
6 Responses are for received food from a shelter.
7 Percentage represents those receiving food assistance from a church or community group.
8 Includes those unable to pay rent, mortgages, or utilities.
9 Percentage represents those who were evicted because of failure to pay rent.
10 Percentage represents those who went without electricity.  Separate numbers are available for water and heat in study.
Source: See Appendix B for a complete listing of the leavers studies referenced.

In the three studies that compare food problems before and after exit, Arizona and Illinois generally find lower absolute numbers experiencing food hardship after exit than prior to exit.(24) However, Washington generally finds higher rates of food problems among leavers than among those who are on TANF. This difference across studies could be related to the fact that Washington is comparing leavers to a separate group of those on TANF, while the other studies compare the same group of people's experiences before and after leaving. Washington's results may be more persuasive, given they are not subject to problems with recall. However, it is important to note that the relative well-being of families on cash assistance will be affected by differences in state benefit levels.

Another area of material hardship is problems with housing and utilities. Again, the surveys use a number of different questions to get at the extent to which leavers are experiencing housing-related problems. One measure is whether the family has been behind on rent or housing costs. In all the studies that ask this question, over a quarter report having experienced this problem since exiting. Another more severe situation is having to move because of inability to pay housing costs. A smaller but substantial percentage of families report this, ranging from 5.7 percent in DC to 17.0 percent in Arizona. Approximately 3.0 percent of families in Arizona, Illinois, and DC report staying in homeless shelters after leaving TANF (Washington reports a lower 1.3 percent). In addition to problems with rent and places to stay, a number of families have had utilities cut off because of failure to pay. This ranges from 5.8 percent of families in DC having had electricity cut off, to 13.9 percent of families having some utility cut off since leaving TANF in Illinois.

Three out of four of the studies (Arizona, Illinois, and DC) find higher absolute percentages of families experiencing these housing-related problems before TANF than after exiting. Again, Washington finds that leavers are slightly worse off, being more likely to have been evicted or without a place to live than those on TANF.

Two other measures of hardship that were asked in several studies have to do with whether children needed to go live elsewhere because of financial problems and whether families were unable to afford or get medical attention. The percentage of families where children were forced to live elsewhere after the family left TANF ranges from 5.4 percent in DC to 8.2 percent in Illinois. The percentages experiencing this situation before leaving TANF is slightly higher. Washington does not include a similar measure but does report that 3 percent of leavers have a child in foster care at least once after TANF, while only 2 percent of those on TANF were in this situation.

The percentage of families unable to get medical attention varies more than the other measures reported, from 8.3 percent in DC to 30.5 percent in Illinois. Unlike the other measures, this is only one that is consistently higher for families after exiting TANF compared with while on TANF. This seems consistent with the significant declines in Medicaid coverage reported earlier.

A final measure of well-being is a more general question posed to families in three of the studies. The questions all ask families to compare their overall well-being since exiting TANF to the prior time period. Approximately one-fifth or less of families report they are worse off or much worse off after leaving TANF than before, 21 percent in Washington, 15 percent in Arizona, and 12.6 percent in Illinois (table VI.2). Less than a third are reporting they are doing about the same since leaving TANF. This leaves more than half of families saying they are better off since leaving welfare, with more than two-thirds of families saying they are better off in Arizona. These results are consistent with the general findings on the material hardship measures that although a number of families experience these problems after exiting, for the most part they experience them less than before leaving TANF. Even in Washington, which found higher rates of most material hardship measures among leavers than among those on TANF, 79 percent of families say they are the same or better off compared to before they left welfare.


Table VI.2:
Overall Current Well-Being Relative to Before Leaving TANF:
Survey Data
State Much Better Off Better Off Same Worse Off Much Worse Off
Arizona1 31 37 16 12 3
Illinois2 n.a. 57 30 13 n.a.
Washington1 32 28 19 13 8
1 Single-parent cases.
2 Respondents were asked only whether "better off," "same," or "worse off."
Source: See Appendix B for a complete listing of the leavers studies referenced.