With welfare caseloads dropping dramatically in the past four years, there has been increased public interest in an apparently simple question: what is happening to families who leave welfare? Do they get jobs? What is their economic status? How are their children faring? To answer these questions, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded grants to 14 states and large counties to track and monitor outcomes for families leaving welfare.(1) The purpose of this paper, and of this panel presentation, is to examine the survey instruments used by these fourteen grantees in their studies of welfare “leavers.”
In this first paper, I examine the instruments from a crossproject perspective. After an initial overview of the 14 projects and the research topics they address, the majority of the paper examines the actual wording of survey items across eleven different instruments. A sample of only five selected outcomes — food stamp receipt, health insurance coverage, food insecurity, health status/access to health care, and knowledge of Medicaid and food stamp eligibility — were selected for this in-depth analysis.(2) Additional outcomes — employment and earnings, barriers to employment, the financial situation of those not employed, and child wellbeing — are discussed by the other co-presenters in this panel, although not from a crossproject perspective.
The crossproject review of instruments in this paper may serve different functions for different audiences. Researchers who are currently designing surveys of leavers may pick up some interesting examples of survey items and reflections on the differences caused by variations in wording of items. For the grantee researchers who are in the midst of analyzing results from the field, the review may provide some aid in “benchmarking” their survey findings to findings in other localities. That is, if a state finds that X percent of its leavers answered a certain question, it is important to know whether any other state or national surveys asked the same question, so that the state’s results can be compared to some benchmark. Analysts who are interested in examining findings across studies can benefit from a better understanding of the comparability of different instruments. Apparent differences between State A and State B may be partially caused by differences in the design of survey items.
Those anxious to know more about the wellbeing of former recipients may be disappointed because this review does not report actual findings. It does, however, provide some preview of the types of information that will be available over the next year, and thus some indication of the extent to which states are asking questions that will provide information needed for policy decisions. Finally, those in HHS, USDA, and other organizations that have provided sample survey items or technical guidance to the grantees may benefit from learning the degree to which researchers have incorporated various survey items in their instruments.