A Profile of Families Cycling on and off Welfare. Discussion of results


This report uses data from several evaluations of welfare-to-work programs to analyze the characteristics, employment patterns, and behavior of cyclers, short-term recipients, and long-term recipients. The incidence of cycling is fairly low across all of the sites used in this report. Cycling rates vary from 3.8 percent (in Philadelphia) to 13.7 percent (in Florida FTP). Other studies have reported cycling rates between 14 percent and 23 percent (see Table 1). The primary difference in the cycling rates in this report and those reported in the literature is that this report tracks welfare receipt over fewer years.

The findings in this report suggest that recipients who leave welfare repeatedly differ in a number of ways from recipients who utilize welfare benefits for only a short time and those who stay on persistently. In many respects, cyclers were shown to be a group in the middle  less disadvantaged in the labor market than long-term recipients, but less able than short-term recipients to attain stable employment and work without welfare. Moreover, cyclers' pattern of welfare receipt during the observation period lies somewhere between that of short-term and long-term recipients. The length of the first two welfare spells of cyclers is similar to those of short-term recipients. However, cyclers spent an average of nearly 27 months on welfare during the observation period, compared with about 12 months for short-term recipients and 40 months for long-term recipients.

The background characteristics of cyclers differ from those of both short-term and long-term recipients in a number of ways. For example, cyclers have children earlier and are significantly younger than short-term or long-term recipients on average. Prior receipt of welfare, the number of children in the household, and the lack of a high-school diploma or GED appear to be good predictors of cycling. In addition, younger recipients are significantly more likely to become cyclers than recipients older than 44 at sample intake, and black recipients are more likely to become cyclers (as opposed to short-term recipients) than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. The results also suggest that a recipient is less likely to become a cycler during good economic times.

Nearly all sample members entered employment at some point during the observation period, and employment levels were high among all three types of recipients. Cyclers appear to have more stable employment compared with long-term recipients, but less stable employment compared with short-term recipients. This is not surprising given the finding that cyclers have some characteristics that lie between those of short-term and long-term recipients. On average, cyclers earned considerably less during the observation period than short-term recipients, despite the fact that a larger percentage of cyclers than short-term recipients ever worked for pay. In addition, cyclers' patterns of work and welfare indicate somewhat greater self-sufficiency than long-term recipients, but considerably less than short-term recipients. For example, cyclers averaged relatively few quarters in the most self-sufficient status  employment without welfare  but significantly more than long-term recipients.

Overall, the findings in this report suggest that cyclers are a unique segment of the welfare caseload and the proportion of cyclers are increasing over time. This segment has characteristics and outcomes that differ from those of short-term and long-term recipients, and as a result, they may have different needs. For example, while cyclers are more likely to be employed, they return to assistance repeatedly due to a combination of factors, including low earnings and loss of employment  made worse, perhaps, by the presence of younger children and having less access to financial and other support from other household members. For policy makers and administrators of state and local TANF programs, these findings suggest that cyclers should derive particular benefit from enhanced supports for work and post-employment services intended to promote employment retention and advancement.


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