A Profile of Families Cycling on and off Welfare. Introduction


Since the passage of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), there has been a growing amount of research on welfare exiting and recidivism. The "leavers" studies sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), for example, have provided important information on how leavers are faring economically, such as how many are working, their incomes, and their receipt of other benefits. These studies also calculate the percentage of leavers who return to welfare within a year after their exit and compare their characteristics (personal and family) to those leavers who do not return.

What about the families that "cycle"  that is, return to welfare repeatedly? There has been much less research on this segment of the welfare caseload, even though cyclers are a potentially important and sizeable segment of the welfare caseload and one that may have different needs than other recipients.

The goals of this report are 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. For this analysis, "cycling" will be defined as receipt of welfare benefits during three or more discrete spells during a four-year "observation" period. (See Sections III.C.5 and III.E. for more details on how welfare spells and cycling are measured.)

Key questions addressed by this report include:

  • What percentage of welfare recipients cycle on and off of welfare?
  • Does the incidence of welfare cycling vary in different localities?
  • What are the characteristics and circumstances of welfare cyclers and their families? To what extent to do they differ from those of welfare recipients who have fewer spells on cash assistance?
  • Are cyclers' welfare spells relatively short-lived or longer term?
  • What are cyclers' employment patterns? Do welfare cyclers tend to leave employment quickly? Do they eventually find stable and well-paying jobs?
  • To what extent do cyclers combine employment and receipt of welfare benefits?
  • Did the changes to the federal welfare system that accompanied passage of PRWORA affect the incidence of welfare cycling?

Answers to these questions can help inform program administrators' and policy makers' decisions about the level of services and financial supports that cyclers and their families receive. For instance, cyclers may use the welfare system as policy makers intended  to support their families during temporary periods of joblessness  and may achieve stable employment over time. Alternatively, cyclers may lack the skills and credentials needed to achieve stable employment. They may return to assistance repeatedly for relatively long spells, following short spells of employment, and never manage to advance in the labor market. In this way, cyclers may more closely resemble long-term welfare recipients who rarely, if ever, find work. Under this view, cyclers may require more intensive and extended pre- and post-employment services and supports for work - especially now that most recipients face time limits on the receipt of welfare benefits and would eventually use up their eligibility if they continued to cycle.

The report is organized as follows. First, we provide background information on what we know about cyclers from studies of leavers and recidivists, since cyclers are a subset of these groups. Second, we describe the various samples and datasets used in this report and the methods employed to analyze them. Next, we describe the families and individuals who cycle on and off of welfare, calculate the incidence of cycling among members of the research sample, and compare the characteristics, employment outcomes, and family circumstances of cyclers to other recipient types. Then, we explore the effect of the PRWORA on cycling. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of our results.


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