Interim Status Report on Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform. Research Findings from “Leavers” Grants are Limited and Very Preliminary


The largest portion of our FY 1998 welfare outcomes funding went to partnering with states and counties through grants to study the experiences of people who left the TANF program (“leavers”).  Similarly, our plans for FY 1999 call for the largest portion of welfare outcomes funding to go to new state/county grants, with an emphasis on families who have been diverted from welfare, and to continue support for selected FY 1998 grants.

Four of the FY 1998 ASPE­funded grantees — Arizona, Washington, San Mateo County in California, and Cuyahoga County in Ohio — have released interim reports that used linked administrative data sets to track families who left welfare in the second half of 1996.  These interim reports provide interesting preliminary findings about former TANF recipients in the areas of employment, returns to TANF, and participation in other programs.  Other grantees are expected to release interim reports within the next few months; and more detailed findings, including information gathered through survey data, will be presented in the final reports, forthcoming in late 1999 and early 2000.

Although it is difficult to compare findings across studies, comparisons among ASPE­funded studies are facilitated by the adoption of a common definition of the “leaver” study population as “all cases that leave cash assistance for at least two months.”  (This definition excludes cases that re-open within one or two months, because such cases are more related to administrative “churning” than to true exits from welfare).  Moreover, these four studies focus on using administrative data to track single­parent families leaving TANF in a similar time period  — the third or fourth quarter of 19961.

The studies differ, however, in important areas of research methodology, such as how to operationalize some of the outcome measures (for example, three studies count anyone with earnings as employed, while the fourth — Cuyahoga County — counts as employed only those with earnings of $100 or more per quarter).  Furthermore, the states differ in TANF policies (e.g., sanction policies, work requirements) and in underlying economic, social and demographic conditions.  Finally, comparisons across studies are even more problematic when looking beyond the ASPE­funded studies, because of the many differences in study populations, time periods studied, sources of data, and research methodologies.

Interestingly, despite the many differences in studies, the preliminary findings from the four studies remain quite consistent, particularly in the areas of employment and recidivism.

  • Employment.  Between 50 and 60 percent of former TANF recipients found work immediately after leaving TANF, according to the four interim reports.  Employment rates rose from less than 50 percent in the months before exit, to relatively stable rates of between 50 and 60 percent throughout the first year after exit, as shown in Figure 1. 

    Figure 1.
    Percentage of Leavers Employed, by Quarter

    Figure 1. Percentage of Leavers Employed, by Quarter

    Over the 12-month period, some former recipients lost their jobs, while others found new employment, resulting in a cumulative employment rates of 68 to 82 percent, measured as those who were ever employed within the first 12 months of exit (see Table 1).

    Table 1. Percentage of Leavers Employed
    Grantee Exit Qtr 1st Qtr post exit 2nd Qtr post exit 3rd Qtr post exit 4th Qtr post exit Ever Employed within 1 year
    Arizona 60.9 58.2 55.8 55.1 55.4 74.7
    Cuyahoga Co. a/ 59.3 54.2 55.8 56.8 71.7
    San Mateo Co. 50.5 49.6 49.9 48.4 50.3 82.3
    Washington 55.0 52.0 52.0 52.0 52.0 68.2
    a/ - Data not available

    These employment rates are consistent with findings in many other leavers’ studies, although rates are somewhat higher in some studies.  These higher rates are largely explained by methodological differences (e.g., the use of survey data and/or the restriction of the study population to leavers who do not return to welfare).  While these employment rates are similar to employment patterns for AFDC leavers in the past, they indicate a substantial increase in the absolute number of families leaving welfare with earnings, given the large increase in case closings in the past few years.

  • Recidivism.  Data from two of the interim reports suggests that between 8 and 12 percent of leavers were receiving welfare again one quarter after exit, as shown in Table 2. 
    Table 2. Percentage of Leavers Receiving TANF
    Grantee 1st Qtr post exit 2nd Qtr post exit 3rd Qtr post exit 4th Qtr post exit Ever Receiving within 1 year
    Arizona a/ a/ a/ a/ 28.4
    Cuyahoga Co. b/ b/ b/ b/ 36.7
    San Mateo Co. 8.2 13.3 13.3 14.1 24.4
    Washington 12.0 19.0 22.0 23.0 29.8

    a/ - Arizona reported the percentage of leavers returning to TANF in each quarter, unlike San Mateo and Washington which reported the percentage of leavers receiving TANF in each quarter, regardless of when they returned.

    b/ - Cuyahoga County reported the percentage of leavers who had ever received TANF during the first 12 months after exit; they did not report quarterly data.

    Most of these re-enter in the third month itself, since cases that re-open after one or two months were excluded from the study population.  The proportion of former recipients receiving TANF increased to between 13 and 19 percent at two quarters after exit, and then increased more slowly, reaching 14 to 23 percent one year after exit.  The proportion that ever returned for at least one month over the first 12 months after exit is somewhat higher, ranging from 24 percent in San Mateo County to 37 percent in the more urban environment of Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) in Ohio.  Again, these findings are in line with other analyses of administrative data.

  • Other Program Participation.  Finally, some of the interim reports provided some information about receipt of food stamps, Medicaid, and other work support programs with administrative data bases.  The most complete set of findings was reported in Arizona; Westra and Routley (1999) reported that 41 percent of single­parent cases leaving TANF were receiving food stamps 12 months after exit, 53 percent of single­parent cases were receiving Medicaid at that same point, and 14 percent were receiving child care subsidies nine months after exit.

Interim reports from Cuyahoga County and San Mateo County suggested lower levels of program receipt, but differences in research methodology preclude direct comparisons.2  Further explorations of food stamp and Medicaid receipt are expected in the final reports.  In addition, the final reports will include analysis of what happens to families leaving welfare a couple of years after TANF implementation (the early findings are from late 1996), including analysis of surveys that include additional measures of child and family well­being.

In addition, a number of states have undertaken non­ASPE­funded projects to collect data on what happens to welfare recipients and former recipients over time, as welfare programs change and as program participants move into the job market and/or lose their welfare benefits.  These studies vary substantially in terms of study design, cohorts, administrative data linkages, research topics, and response rates3.  The ASPE­funded state/county grant projects are designed to improve the quality and consistency of approach of such research across states.

Among ASPE’s other projects, only one study, supported in part by welfare outcomes funds in FY 1998, has produced any results to date.4