Leavers, Stayers, and Cyclers An Analysis of the Welfare Caseload. Defining Leavers, Stayers, and Cyclers


The definition of “leaving welfare” varies across the studies in the existing research. In order to compare results across states, most of the HHS-sponsored leaver studies use the traditional “two-months-off” definition. Recipients who, during the period studied, were observed to be off welfare for at least two consecutive months were defined as “leavers.” This two-month minimum is used to avoid one-month breaks in payments that sometimes occur because of administrative errors. A few of these studies also define “continuous leavers” as those who were still off welfare at the time of the follow-up survey, which ranged from six months to three years after their exit. Studies using the Urban Institute’s NSAF, on the other hand, define leavers as those who had received benefits at some point during the two years prior to the survey but were not receiving benefits at the time of the survey. 
This report uses a stricter definition of leaving in order to focus on those women who were fairly reliant on welfare at some point during the period but then really left, meaning that they left welfare and stayed off for at least 12 consecutive months. This definition of leavers follows Moffitt and Roff (2000), who define a group called “dependency leavers,” or people who leave relatively long spells of welfare and stay off for a substantial amount of time. They found that only about half the conventionally defined leavers were dependency leavers. 
Although defining leavers using the “two-months-off” criterion has its merits (it is important to determine how long leavers stay off welfare, for example, and who eventually returns), a stricter definition of leaving may be more policy-relevant, in the sense that it focuses on families who have really left welfare. Similarly, this report uses a stricter definition of “staying.” Rather than examining people who were receiving benefits at the time of the survey (which will include people who recently came onto welfare and people who will leave in a few months), stayers are defined as those recipients who stayed on welfare for nearly the entire3.Again, this distinction may be most relevant for policymakers and state follow-up period.administrators as they consider policies to work with families who are left on the caseload. Of course, it is an open question whether these stricter definitions will tell a noticeably different story from the traditional definitions. This report helps to answer whether this distinction matters and, if so, in what ways. 
The three groups are defined as follows: 
  • Leavers. People who received welfare for at least 6 consecutive months and subsequently left and stayed off welfare for at least 12 consecutive months. Over 80 percent of leavers had only one welfare spell during the follow-up period. 
  • Stayers. People who never left welfare during the follow-up period or who had multiple welfare spells but spent the majority of the follow-up period on welfare. Over 70 percent of stayers had only one welfare spell and stayed on welfare throughout the entire follow-up period or left a few months before the end of the follow-up period. Most of the remaining stayers had two spells of welfare and received welfare for at least 70 percent of the follow-up period. 
  • Cyclers. People who had only one spell on welfare that was six months or  less or who had multiple spells but did not spend the majority of the follow-up period on welfare. One-third of cyclers had only one spell that lasted less than six months. The remainder had two or more spells of welfare but spent less than 70 percent of the follow-up period on welfare. 
The cycler group—defined as everyone who did not fit the definition of a stayer or a leaver—contains a fairly diverse group of people, from those who used welfare for only a few4 Table 2 presents the percentage of leavers, months to those who cycled back on several times.stayers, and cyclers for the pooled sample and for each of the programs. About one-third of the total sample are defined as stayers, 48.1 percent are leavers, and 20.2 percent are cyclers. This pattern varies across the programs in expected ways. For example, stayers make up a higher fraction of the MFIP samples, since MFIP’s generous financial incentives allowed recipients to work and still remain eligible for some benefits. Although the WRP program also had incentives, they were much less generous than MFIP’s. FTP, one of the time-limit programs, has the fewest stayers. Although Jobs First also had a time limit, two factors might account for the relatively high fraction of stayers in the sample. First, extensions to the time limit were typically granted to recipients who were not earning above a certain amount. Second, although the sample in all evaluations is restricted to people with between 36 and 60 months of follow-up data, the follow-up period for the Jobs First sample is on the short end of this range, meaning that there were fewer months to observe recipients leaving welfare. Many recipients in the NEWWS sample, in contrast, were followed for up to 60 months, which may partly explain why there are fewer stayers in NEWWS than in Jobs First. 
Table 2
Patterns of Receipt, by Program
Program Stayers Cyclers Leavers
WRP, Incentives Only
34.9 24.8 40.4
MFIP, Incentives Only
56.6 10.1 33.4
WRP 30.7 26.0 43.3
MFIP 47.7 14.6 37.7
NEWWS, Education focused 33.1 19.5 47.4
NEWWS, Employment focused 27.9 22.4 49.7
Jobs First
37.4 14.4 48.2
FTP 4.9 39.0 56.1
Total 31.7 20.2 48.1

SOURCE:   MDRC calculations from administrative records.

3The length of the follow-up varies across evaluations, ranging from 36 to 60 months.  

4As discussed later, the results did not differ significantly when the cycler group was restricted to people with at least two welfare spells. 

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