Interim Status Report on Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform. General Strategies for Understanding the Outcomes of Welfare Reform


Passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in August 1996 was a watershed event in the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to the states.  As such, interest has been and remains high about the effects of welfare reform, and questions abound about what is known about the implementation of welfare reform, including state policy and spending choices.  The Department acted early to create a research, evaluation and data strategy that would assure that the implementation of welfare reform and its effects would be documented.  The infusion of Policy Research funding dedicated to studying welfare outcomes has been invaluable to our efforts to add to and enhance the information about welfare reform outcomes that will be available to the Congress and other interested parties.

There is a broad array of ongoing research about welfare reform being funded by the Department and other public and private funders.  We have used the targeted Policy Research funds to fully fund some projects, to fund specific portions of some larger studies, and to co-fund with other federal and state agencies yet other projects.  As a result our research, evaluation and data activities cover a wide spectrum of welfare outcomes policy interests.

Despite the breadth and scope of these efforts, from a research perspective it is still early and our knowledge is still quite limited in many areas.

  • Analysis of all available sources of information shows that the employment of current and former recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has increased significantly.
  • Examination of welfare reform waiver demonstrations and the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) March supplements suggest that welfare reform is having a positive effect on the earnings of some categories of recipients, but not uniformly.
  • Data from four waiver evaluations in which the reform program succeeded in increasing mandatory work activities, employment and earnings suggest mixed effects on family income, depending on the generosity of benefit levels and earnings disregards.
  • Evidence about impacts of welfare reform on health insurance status, child well­being and family structure, food security and hunger, and other family experiences is much less clear.
  • Very little is known about low­income families who do not become welfare recipients.
  • Since welfare reform has been implemented in the context of a strong national economy, little is known about the effect of welfare reform in other economic circumstances.

In addition, there are many factors that limit what research can accomplish, including a wide variation in what is happening across states, between local sites, and even from worker­to­worker; the continuing evolution of state policies and devolution of state responsibilities; the difficulty in tracking people who may no longer be receiving any public benefits; and the confounding effects of other variables (such as the economy) in changing outcomes.  Because of these factors, the ability of research, evaluation, and data to completely answer questions is always limited.

To optimize the potential that these targeted funds will increase the Department’s understanding of the outcomes of welfare reform, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) has created, often with other funding partners involved, a portfolio of studies and strategies.  Careful attention has been paid to identifying on-going research, evaluation, and data activities which could be enhanced or modified, and to identifying activities being funded or planned by other entities that would help fill the knowledge gaps or provide joint­funding opportunities while avoiding unnecessary duplication.  In keeping with the recommendations of the conferees, our plans include studies involving state­specific surveys and data sets and utilizing administrative data from other programs such as Food Stamps and Social Security records.  In selecting our state and county grantees, in particular, ASPE has sought to measure outcomes across varied dimensions, including low and high economic growth areas of the country.  ASPE has also provided funding to the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on National Statistics to convene a panel of experts to review data needs and methods for evaluating the outcomes of welfare reform.  Our specific activities and plans in each of the recommended areas are summarized below.