A Profile of Families Cycling on and off Welfare. Recidivism


One of the key outcomes examined for leavers is how many eventually return to welfare. People who return to welfare are not necessarily cyclers, since they may only return once. However, cyclers are a subset of this group of returners. The research on recidivists addresses three broad questions:

  1. How many leavers return to welfare?
  2. How quickly do they return?
  3. What are the characteristics and circumstances of people who return compared with people who do not return?

An important finding from the research on leavers is that most of them do not return to welfare (Rickman et al., 2001; Bruce et al., 2001; Acs and Loprest, 2001). Acs and Loprest (2001), for example, report that across the range of leavers' studies, a median of 27 percent of leavers returned to welfare at some point within the first year after exit (this number ranged from 17 percent to 38 percent across the sites). Loprest (2002), using data from the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF), found that a little over 20 percent of leavers had returned to welfare by the time of the follow-up survey, which ranged from one month to two years after their exit. Also, most of the individuals at risk of re-entry have been found to do so relatively soon after they exit welfare, such as within 6 months to a year (Julnes et al., 2000; Bruce et al., 2002; and Harris, 1996). The findings from this research suggest that the incidence of cycling is likely to be fairly low since cyclers, by definition, return to welfare numerous times.

The existing research shows that people who return to welfare are more disadvantaged and less employable than people who do not return. For example, people who return tend to have lower education levels, more children, and less work experience than people who do not return (e.g., Julnes et al., 2000; Rickman et al., 2001; Bruce et al., 2002; Harris, 1996). Other family circumstances, such as whether the family receives non-welfare supports, also predict who returns to welfare. For example, staying off of welfare is associated with the receipt of childcare subsidies, health insurance, food stamps, and help with family expenses (Loprest, 2002).

Thus, cycling on and off of welfare is likely to be related to personal and family circumstances, an individual's skill level, her work experience and employment patterns, and her receipt of supports.

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