The other side of the caseload decline concerns stayers, or those who are left on the welfare rolls. As mentioned earlier, the research consistently finds that people who stay on welfare are more disadvantaged, on average, than people who leave. They are less educated, for example, and have less work experience. An important question with respect to stayers is whether they have become increasingly harder-to-employ in recent years. The dramatic decline in the caseload may have been driven by the people who can leave welfare most easily, or those who are the most employable. In this case, the current caseload, or people receiving welfare today, is likely to be more disadvantaged and to face more barriers to work than the caseload in 1994, for example. On the other hand, if the caseload decline occurred among all types of recipients, not just the most employable, the current caseload may not be more disadvantaged than the caseload several years earlier. There is less research on this question, but the evidence does not point to big differences between current and past recipients. Zedlewski and Anderson (2001) compare people who were receiving welfare in 1997 with those who were receiving welfare in 1999. Although the two groups look different in some ways (the more recent caseload, for example, has a higher percentage of women living with a partner and a higher percentage of black women), the recent caseload did not look more disadvantaged. In fact, more parents in the recent caseload were working at the time of the survey. Oellerich (2001) uses AFDC quality control data from 1988 to 1999 and also finds little evidence that the caseload has become harder-to-employ.
In sum, people who leave welfare are less disadvantaged and face fewer barriers to work than people who stay. Most leavers work after they leave welfare, although not necessarily consistently. Many leavers do not receive other benefits for which they are probably eligible, and most are still poor. Finally, the caseload does not seem to have changed in a substantial way; recent leavers are not more disadvantaged than earlier leavers, and the caseload has not become filled with the ranks of the hardest-to employ. The last finding suggests that, although leavers are more employable than stayers on average, a fairly broad cross-section of the caseload left welfare over the past several years and also that a broad cross-section - including new entrants to welfare - continues to receive benefits.
This study adds to the research in several ways. First, it offers administrative records data on welfare receipt for between three and five years for each sample member. It uses these data to track patterns of receipt over time and to identify long-term leavers, long-term stayers, and others who cycle on and off welfare. In the existing research, leavers are defined very broadly to include people who may come back on the rolls fairly quickly. Would the results differ if the definition were changed to include only people who have left for a longer time? For example, the research shows that leavers are less disadvantaged than stayers. Are these differences bigger when long-term stayers and long-term leavers are compared? And would the same conclusions be reached about how leavers are faring if this long-term definition were used? This study also examines the characteristics and circumstances of cyclers, a group that has received less attention in the research.
Second, this study uses administrative data on employment and earnings to track employment at the point of exit and beyond for welfare leavers. These data identify a key group of interest to policymakers—nonworking welfare leavers—and examine their characteristics and circumstances after exiting welfare. Who are the people who left welfare with no apparent work? What income sources do they rely on and how do the fare relative to workers?
Finally, this study takes advantage of the variation in welfare-to-work programs to examine whether the characteristics and circumstances of welfare leavers and stayers differ by program type. For example, do time-limit programs result in different types of people leaving welfare than other programs, thus affecting how leavers look and fare relative to stayers?