Profile of Families Cycling on and off Welfare: Research Brief. Background


Since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), there has been a growing literature on welfare exits and recidivism. Less is known, however, about the families that “cycle” — that is, return to welfare repeatedly. The goals of this report were to understand the incidence of cycling and the types of families who cycle on and off the rolls, and, if possible, to shed light onto why they repeatedly return to assistance.

Under contract with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), MDRC analyzed the experiences of welfare cyclers using data from five MDRC studies of welfare reform conducted during the mid- to late-1990s. Three of these studies were experimental evaluations of welfare reform initiatives — Connecticut Jobs First, Florida Family Transition Program (FTP), and Vermont Work Restructuring Project (WRP). Two were non-experimental studies of the effects of welfare reform in large urban areas: Cleveland (Cuyahoga County) and Philadelphia Urban Change.

Cyclers were defined as those who received welfare benefits during three or more discrete spells during a four-year observation period. MDRC compared welfare, employment, and other outcomes for cyclers to those of two other groups within the welfare caseload: short-term recipients and long-term recipients. A short-term recipient was defined as someone who had 1 or 2 spells and a total of up to 24 months of welfare receipt during the 4-year (48-month) observation period. Long-term recipients were defined as sample members with 1 or 2 spells and a total of 25 to 48 months of welfare receipt during the observation period.

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