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


Table 4 uses the survey samples to present data on family income and material hardship, measured at the time of the follow-up surveys. The top panel presents income and poverty in the month before the survey and household composition at the time of the survey. The bottompanel presents several measures of material hardship, experienced either during the 12 months prior to the survey or, in the case of food hardship, in the month prior to the survey. Note that because leavers, stayers, and cyclers were defined using the administrative records data, some leavers report receiving welfare income in the month prior to the survey, because they had returned to welfare by that time.6
Table 4
Stayers, Cyclers, and Leavers:
Household Income and Material Hardship
Characteristics Stayers Cyclers Leavers
Difference between Stayers and Leavers
Difference between Cyclers and Leavers
Income and Poverty in the Month Before the Survey
Total Income ($) 1.237 1.443 1.517 -280 ** -74 **
Poverty status (%)
Income below poverty 61.3 43.8 42.7 18.6 ** 1.1 **
Income below 50% of poverty
7.7 12.7 10.5 -2.8 ** 2.2 **
Household income sources (%)
AFDC/TANF 89.3 31.2 35.9 53.4 ** -4.7 **
Food Stamps 89.8 53.7 51.1 38.7 ** 2.6 **
Child support 11.2 16.9 18.4 -7.2 ** -1.5
Other income 36.7 34.3 32.0 4.7 ** 2.3 **
Respondent's earnings 28.3 59.7 56.0 -27.7 ** 3.7 **
Other household earnings 18.2 26.3 32.5 -14.3 ** -6.2 **
Household composition (%)
Currently married 4.9 8.5 8.4 -3.5 ** 0.1 *
Not married, but other adults in household
12.5 20.8 18.3 -5.8 ** 2.5 **
Material Hardship 
Material hardship in prior year (%)
Did not pay full amount of rent/mortgage
26.3 31.8 33.0 -6.7 ** -1.2 *
Evicted for not paying rent/mortgage
4.7 9.8 5.0 -0.3 * 4.8 **
Did not pay full amount for utilities
46.8 37.3 39.0 7.8 ** -1.7
Utilities shut off 11.0 18.0 14.6 -3.6 ** 3.4
Telephone shut off 25.7 32.4 31.3 -3.8 ** 1.1 *
Could not see doctor 8.8 24.6 23.3 -14.5 ** 1.3 *
Could not see dentist 13.5 34.1 33.4 -19.9 ** 0.7 *
Number of hardships 1.4 1.9 1.8 -0.4 ** 0.1
Food insufficient in prior month (%) 15.6 15.6 13.2 2.4 2.4 *
Sample size 3.257 1.609 3.611  
SOURCE:  MDRC calculations from survey data from the evaluations listed in Table 1. 
NOTES:  This analysis is restricted to the individuals in the Program Group.
                 The data are weighted to reflect the size of the welfare caseload in each state.
The first row of Table 4 presents total household income, measured as the sum of all income sources for the family in the prior month. Average incomes—ranging from $1,200 to $1,500—are quite low for all three groups. On average, leavers had higher incomes than stayers, although the difference is not big: $1,517 compared with $1,237. As mentioned in the previous section, this difference in incomes does not prove causation, or that leaving welfare made these families better off. Because leavers were less disadvantaged than stayers, it is likely that they would have had higher incomes even if they had not left welfare. In fact, the formal evaluations of many welfare-to-work programs, including those used for this report, suggest that leaving welfare does not make many families better off; programs that encouraged families to leave welfare did not, on average, lead to increases in income. 
The next two rows of Table 4 present data on poverty and severe poverty. The poverty rate is calculated by comparing an annualized measure of income in the month prior to the survey with the official poverty rate for each family. It is not comparable to the official poverty rate, because it is based on monthly income and because it counts Food Stamp benefits as part of income. It is also based on pretax income and does not subtract payroll taxes or add any benefits that the family might receive from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). 
Despite the small difference in average incomes for leavers and stayers, leavers had a much lower poverty rate; 61.3 percent of stayers were below poverty, compared with 42.7 percent of leavers. This difference between income and poverty suggests that many of the people who left welfare had incomes just above the poverty line. Despite having a lower overall poverty rate, leavers were somewhat more likely than stayers to have incomes below 50.0 percent of the poverty line, or to be in severe poverty. Although this difference is small, it shows that some fraction of families did not fare well after leaving welfare. Stayers were much more likely than leavers to rely on welfare and Food Stamps as income sources and were much less likely to rely on their own earnings or the earnings of other adults in the household. The low rate of Food Stamp use among leavers is consistent with findings from other research, showing that many families who leave welfare do not stay on Food Stamps even though they are probably still eligible for them. The low take-up rate is thought to be due to a variety of factors, such as a lack of information on eligibility and the time and money hassles of applying and reapplying for benefits (Miller, Redcross, and Henrichson, 2002). 
The next several rows of Table 4 present data on household composition. Less then 10 percent of the parents in the sample were married at the time of the survey, and about 15 percent to 20 percent had other nonspouse adults in the household. The differences in household composition between stayers and leavers are not large, although they are consistent with the idea that some people left welfare not for work but for marriage or cohabitation. Leavers were somewhat more likely than stayers to be married at the time of the survey and, if they were not married, to have other adults in the household. Consistent with Table 3, cyclers look very similar to leavers in terms of income and household composition. 
The last several rows of Table 4 present data on material hardship. Respondents were asked whether they had experienced any of the listed hardships in the year prior to the survey. A glance at the numbers for all three groups indicates a fairly high rate of economic struggles; about a third of respondents did not pay their full rent at some point, and a similar number had their telephones disconnected. Despite having higher incomes and lower poverty rates, both leavers and cyclers reported greater levels of material hardship than stayers. The biggest differences are in access to health care. Leavers and cyclers were much more likely to report that there was someone in their household who needed to go to a doctor (or go to a hospital) or dentist but could not go. For example, 23.3 percent of leavers reported that they could not see a doctor, compared with only 8.8 percent of stayers. This difference is an important one and is most likely related to the loss of Medicaid when families leave welfare. Many families who leave welfare lose health coverage, despite the existence of transitional Medicaid and other health programs for low-income families (Quint and Widom, 2001). 
The last row of Table 4 examines food hardship. Respondents were asked to describe the household’s food eaten in the month prior to the survey. Those who responded “Sometimes not enough to eat” or “Often not enough to eat” are defined as food-insufficient. Stayers and cyclers had somewhat higher rates of food insufficiency than leavers, but the differences are not large.  
How would these results differ if welfare leavers had been defined in the same way as in the earlier studies—meaning all recipients who left welfare for at least two consecutive months during the follow-up period? Using this definition, about 80 percent of the sample are leavers, which includes all cyclers and nearly half the people who were previously defined as stayers. Appendix Tables A1 and A2 present the results comparing traditionally defined leavers with the remaining 20 percent of the sample (which, by definition, includes only those people who never left welfare for at least two consecutive months). In general, the results are similar. For example, leavers are more educated than stayers; they have fewer children; and they are less likely to be black. The results are also similar for prior work experience and employment barriers. Table A2 presents income and material hardship. Leavers have higher incomes than stayers and are much less likely to be poor. The group of traditionally defined leavers has a somewhat higher poverty rate than the long-term leavers (see Table 4), but the difference is not large. Thus, although the longer-term definitions may be theoretically more precise in identifying groups of interest, in practice they seem to have few implications for describing the average characteristics of various groups in the caseload. Part of the reason for this finding is that cyclers look, on average, very similar to leavers. 

6A small number of leavers may have not yet left welfare by the time of the survey.  


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