Moving People from Welfare to Work. Lessons from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies.. Control Group Outcomes: How do welfare recipients fare in the absence of welfare-to-work programs?


The experiences of the control group members in the NEWWS sites set the standard against which the program groups' experiences were measured (for the programs' impacts, see the next sections). Through examination of control group outcomes, the following portrait of the characteristics, attitudes, and behavior of welfare recipients who are not subject to welfare-to-work programs emerges.

  • Most welfare recipients eventually work, but not steadily, and their earnings are low.

About three-quarters of control group members found jobs during the five-year follow-up period. But stable employment was uncommon: About three-fourths of those who found jobs were unemployed by the end of the fourth year, although most eventually became employed again. Including all control group members -- that is, averaging in the zero earnings of those who did not work -- the control groups' average earnings over the five years ranged from $12,752 to $25,566, or about $2,500 to $5,000 a year, across the seven sites.1 Looking only at those who were working at the end of the five years and averaging across all the sites, earnings in the last quarter were $3,110, or, annualized, about $12,500.

  • Recipients with a high school diploma or GED earn more than those who lack this credential.

Control group members who had a high school diploma or GED at study entry earned an average of $24,196 over five years, whereas people who lacked these credentials at study entry earned an average of $13,231. It was this general phenomenon that led designers of FSA to emphasize education in welfare-to-work programs, in the hope that investments in education would pay off in labor market outcomes.

The positive relationship between education credentials and earnings does not prove, however, that more education leads to higher earnings. To distinguish between correlation and causation, NEWWS examined whether the welfare-to-work programs that required people to participate in adult education activities (particularly classes aimed at helping people attain a GED) boosted outcomes such as attendance in education activities, reading and math literacy skills, and the rate at which people obtained credentials -- and whether the programs thereby increased earnings -- by comparing program enrollees' outcomes with those for people were not subject to any education participation requirement. The results of this analysis are presented in the third section of this document.

  • A large majority of welfare recipients leave the welfare rolls within five years.

By the end of five years, between 17 percent and 37 percent of control group members across sites were receiving welfare, some of them having remained on the rolls continuously and others having left and returned. Over the five years (60 months) of the study's follow-up period, control group members received welfare for an average of 25 months to 38 months, depending on the site.

  • On average, welfare recipients' income is low.

Over the five years, control group members in most sites took in between $40,000 and $45,000 from earnings, welfare payments, food stamps, and the Earned Income Credit (EIC) -- a refundable tax credit for low-wage workers -- minus payroll taxes, or about $8,000 to $9,000 a year. This combined income typically would have been for a family of three. The proportion of family income derived from earnings ranged from 30 percent to 45 percent.

  • A substantial minority of welfare recipients who leave welfare lack health care coverage five years later.

When they entered NEWWS, virtually all control group members were on welfare and had Medicaid coverage. Although the majority had health care coverage at the end of five years, about one-quarter of them did not, suggesting that many of those who left welfare to work were not able to replace Medicaid with private coverage once their post-welfare transitional health benefits expired. Among those who had coverage, most were covered by public programs such as Medicaid rather than by employer-sponsored or other private plans. Employment in no way guaranteed health care coverage: Of control group members who were working at the end of the five years, between 20 percent and 30 percent lacked coverage; of those who had coverage, only about one-third to one-half obtained it from their employer. Owing to the larger number of public health programs for low-income children than for low-income adults, children were somewhat more likely to have coverage than their parents. Still, about one-fifth of children in the control groups were not covered at the end of five years.

  • The majority of welfare recipients enroll themselves in some type of employment-promoting activity even when they are not required to participate in a welfare-to-work program.

Most control group members enrolled in vocational training or postsecondary education at some point during the five years. Few enrolled themselves in organized job search activities or adult education courses.

  • A small proportion of single-parent welfare mothers marry or give birth to another child within five years.

Over the five-year follow-up period, less than one-fifth of single-parent mothers in the control groups got married, and a similar proportion added a new baby to their household through birth, marriage, adoption, or foster care.

  • A substantial minority of welfare recipients report having recently experienced domestic abuse.

About one-fifth of the control group members in NEWWS reported having experienced some form of domestic abuse during the fifth year of the study period. Much of this was nonphysical abuse (such as threatening, yelling, or insulting), but between 7 percent and 14 percent of control group members reported having experienced recent physical abuse (such as hitting).

  • The children of welfare recipients do not fare as well on some measures of well-being as do children in national samples.

Relative to national samples, school-aged children in the NEWWS control groups were more likely to have repeated a grade or dropped out of school, and younger children were more likely to have behavior problems and were less cognitively ready for school. On measures of child health and safety, the children in the control groups were similar to those in national samples.2