A Profile of Families Cycling on and off Welfare. Cyclers


While limited, the current research on cyclers addresses the following questions: 1) What is the incidence of cycling among the caseload? 2) What are the characteristics and circumstances of cyclers? 3) Does cycling lead to longer or shorter stays on welfare? Researchers have also considered whether cyclers resemble other welfare populations (such as shorter- or longer-term recipients) in their background characteristics and employment and welfare behavior - or whether they should best be considered as a unique population.

Researchers have defined cycling quite differently. (See Table 1 for a summary of these definitions.) Nonetheless, the existing research indicates that cyclers make up a relatively small fraction of the caseload. Moffitt (2002), for example, defined cyclers as those with three or more welfare spells within a ten-year period. Using this definition and data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) from 1979 to 1996, he found that 20 percent of individuals who had ever been on welfare were cyclers. Ver Ploeg (2002) defined cyclers as recipients with three or more welfare spells within a nine-year period. Using data from a sample of adults in Wisconsin who received Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in July 1995, she found that cyclers represented about 14 percent of the sample. Miller (2002) defined cyclers as individuals with only one short spell on welfare or those with two or more spells, who spent less than half of the observation period (three to five years) on welfare. Using this definition and data from several welfare waiver evaluations, Miller (2002) found that about 20 percent of a sample of new applicants and ongoing recipients were cyclers. Finally, Zedlewski and Alderson (2001) use data from the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF) and define cyclers as those who first received welfare more than two years prior to each survey (in 1997 and 1999) and who received welfare only intermittently in the two years prior to the survey. Using this definition, they find that cyclers were 20 percent of the caseload in 1997 and 23 percent in 1999, where the caseload includes all adults receiving benefits at the time of the survey.

The different ways in which researchers have defined cycling have affected their other findings on cycling, such as cyclers' background characteristics, typical length of welfare receipt, and relative disadvantage in the labor market. For instance, Moffitt (2002) finds that cyclers tend to have medium-length spells (of between 7 and 30 months), rather than short or long spells, suggesting that cyclers are a fairly welfare-dependent group. Similarly, Zedlewski and Alderson (2001) find that cyclers looked more like ongoing recipients than new entrants, in terms of employment rates and education levels.

Both Ver Ploeg (2002) and Moffitt (2002) concluded that over 80 percent of cyclers spent more than two years of the observation period on welfare, although the two researchers did not agree about whether cyclers experience very long spells of assistance. Moffitt (2002) found that 45 percent of them had a total time on welfare of more than five years, compared with only 18 percent found by Ver Ploeg (2002).(1) In contrast, Miller (2002) concluded that cyclers tended to be short-termers, receiving welfare benefits for less than two years during the observation period for her study. However, it should be noted that, for the larger purposes of her research, Miller (2002) intentionally sought to distinguish cyclers from long-term recipients.

This variation in findings across studies underscores the importance of comparing patterns of cycling in additional sites and additional welfare populations. This report helps meet this need. The report also provides more information about whether cycling is higher or lower since the implementation of PRWORA and also whether the incidence of cycling varies according to labor market conditions, welfare grant levels, and other site-related factors.

Table 1.
Cycler Definitions and Estimates from Past Studies
Research Study Cycler Definition Sample Data Sources Cycler Estimate
Miller (2002) Individuals who had only one spell on welfare that was six months or less or who had multiple spells but spent less than half of the observation period (three to five years) on welfare A total of 36,449 new applicants and ongoing recipients from several welfare-to-work evaluation studies Administrative Records 20%
Moffitt (2002) Individuals with three or more welfare spells within a ten-year period A total of 514 women that received at least one month of AFDC from ages 20-29. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1979-1996 20%
Ver Ploeg (2002) Individuals with three or more welfare spells within a nine-year period A total of 48,216 single parent women that received welfare in July 1995 in the state of Wisconsin. Administrative Records 14%
Zedlewski and Alderson (2001) Individuals who received welfare intermittently in two years prior to being surveyed and who first received welfare more than two years prior to being surveyed 1,831 adults receiving TANF in 1997 and 850 families receiving TANF in 1999. 1997 and 1999 National Survey of America's Families 20% in 1997 and 23% in 1999
Sources: See References for full citation.


(1) As Moffitt, 2002, notes, there is a potentially important difference between his study and Ver Ploeg's. The base sample for his study is all people who ever received welfare at some point during a 10-year period, while Ver Ploeg uses all people who were on welfare at a point in time. The latter method will miss spells not in progress at the point in which the sample was drawn.

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