A Profile of Families Cycling on and off Welfare. What are the patterns of welfare receipt and employment among cyclers?


The characteristics presented in Table 5 represented the pre-sample intake period. Table 7 shows welfare receipt and employment patterns during the four-year observation period. Based on the results of Table 5, which revealed that cyclers have characteristics that lie between those of long- term and short-term recipients, we would expect cyclers to fare somewhat better in terms of employment and welfare receipt than long-term recipients, but perhaps not quite as well as short-term recipients. Table 7 confirms this. The table shows that cyclers, on average, received 27 months of cash assistance within the four-year observation period, compared with 12 months for short-term recipients and 40 months for long-term recipients. The distribution of months of welfare receipt reveals that the largest percentage of cyclers (39 percent) had between 25 and 36 months of cash assistance receipt. In contrast, most short-term recipients (53 percent) received welfare for 12 months or less; and a large majority of long-term recipients remained on assistance for more than 36 months  or three-quarters of the observation period.

The analysis of spell lengths also confirms the placement of cyclers between short-term and long-term recipients. The average length of the first spell for cyclers and short-term recipients was nearly identical (at 11 months each, respectively), while the first spell for long-term recipients lasted considerably longer (36 months).

Notably, nearly all sample members found employment at some point during the observation period; and employment levels were high among all three groups. On average, cyclers experienced greater success in the labor market than long-term recipients, but did not fare as well as short-term recipients. For example, over 90 percent of cyclers worked for pay during the four-year observation period, compared with 76 percent of long-term recipients and 82 percent for short-term recipients.(29)

Over four years, both cyclers and short-term recipients averaged between 8 and 9 quarters of employment. These averages may also be expressed as average quarterly employment rates. These indicators show that both cyclers and short-term recipients worked for pay during a little over half of the four-year (or 16-quarter) observation period.(30) The typical long-term recipient was employed during only 5.5 quarters, or about one-third of the quarters in the observation period.

Table 7.
Patterns of Welfare Receipt, Employment, and Food Stamp Receipt for Cyclers, Short-Term Recipients, and Long-Term Recipients During Years 1 and 4 After Sample Intake
Outcome Cyclers Short-Term Recipients Long-term Recipients Full Sample
Welfare receipt
Average total months of welfare receipt 26.9 12.3 39.6 ** 25.8
Months of welfare receipt (%)
  1-12 7.5 52.5 0.0 ** 25.2
  13-24 34.3 47.5 0.0 ** 25.0
  25-36 39.1 0.0 38.3 ** 20.5
  37-48 19.1 0.0 61.7 ** 29.3
Average number of welfare spells 3.3 1.2 1.3 ** 1.4
Number of welfare spells (%)
  1 n/a 76.8 71.8 ** 68.1
  2 n/a 23.2 28.2 ** 23.5
  3 or more 100.0 n/a n/a 8.5
Average number of months of welfare receipt per spell
  Spell 1 11.0 10.8 35.6 ** 22.0
  Spell 2(a) 7.8 6.5 14.2 ** 9.9
  Spell 3 6.8 n/a n/a 6.8
Received welfare (%)
  During last month of year 2 49.5 8.3 92.6 ** 49.6
  During last month of year 4 39.6 2.7 46.1 ** 25.3
Average monthly welfare receipt (%) 54.6 25.4 81.6 ** 53.1
Total welfare payments ($) 9,323 4,667 16,755 ** 10,487
Ever employed (%) 91.1 81.6 76.0 ** 79.9
Average quarterly employment (%) 54.5 52.0 34.2 ** 44.2
Average total quarters of employment 8.7 8.3 5.5 ** 7.1
Quarters of employment (%)
  0 8.9 18.4 24.0 ** 20.1
  1 to 4 15.2 16.3 25.2 ** 20.2
  5 to 8 21.9 12.0 23.3 ** 17.9
  9 to 12 25.7 17.8 15.2 ** 17.3
  13 to 16 28.3 35.5 12.3 ** 24.5
Total earnings ($) 16,885 24,974 10,022 ** 17,577
If ever employed:
  Average quarterly employment (%) 59.8 63.7 44.9 ** 55.3
  Total earnings ($) 18,537 30,619 13,180 ** 22,003
  Average earnings per quarter employed ($) 1,938 3,002 1,833 2,486
Percentage of quarters in employment and welfare status (%)
  Employed and did not receive welfare 20.2 37.9 8.6 ** 23.3
  Employed and received welfare 34.2 14.1 25.5 ** 20.9
  Not employed and received welfare 33.5 16.3 60.1 ** 37.4
  Not employed and did not receive welfare 12.0 31.7 5.8 ** 18.4
Food stamp receipt
Average total months of food stamp receipt 33.9 19.2 40.7 ** 30.1
Months of food stamp receipt (%)
  0-12 2.6 38.0 2.5 ** 19.1
  13-24 17.7 32.4 2.3 ** 17.7
  25-36 33.2 15.0 20.3 ** 18.9
  37-48 46.6 14.5 74.9 ** 44.3
Average monthly food stamp receipt (%) 70.6 40.0 84.8 ** 62.7
Total food stamp payments ($) 8,036 4,140 10,381 ** 7,271
Total measured income ($)(b) 34,244 33,781 37,157 ** 35,336
Sample size 10,393 62,388 88,226 161,007
Sources: MDRC calculations from state and county administrative records.
Notes: The samples were equally weighted by site.
F-tests were used to assess differences across the main comparison groups.
"**" indicates statistical significance at the 0.05 level or smaller.
"n/a" indicates "not applicable." By definition, cyclers are the only group with three or more welfare spells.
(a): Calculations are for sample members with a second welfare spell.
(b): This measure represents the sum of before-tax UI earnings, TANF, and food stamps. It excludes Earned Income Tax Credits, earnings from other adults in the family, and other unearned income (e.g., child support and Supplemental Security Income benefits).

Less positively, cyclers experienced less stable employment, than short-term recipients. About 28 percent of cyclers worked for pay during 13 or more quarters, or 75 percent of the 4-year (16-quarter) observation period. In contrast, more than 35 percent of short-term recipients worked for 13 or more quarters. Furthermore, among sample members who worked for pay during the observation period, short-term recipients worked a larger percentage of quarters compared with cyclers  63.7 percent versus 59.8 percent. (See the average quarterly employment rate for "ever employed.") As expected, a very small minority, 12.3 percent, of long-term recipients experienced stable employment, defined as working for 13 or more quarters, during the observation period.

On average, cyclers earned considerably less during the observation period than short-term recipients. The typical cycler earned a total of $16,885 over four years, over $8,000, or 33 percent, below the total for short-term recipients. Averages for each group include $0s for sample members with no recorded earnings after sample intake.

It is somewhat surprising that cyclers earned so much less than short-term recipients during the observation period, because a larger proportion of cyclers ever worked for pay: 91.1 percent versus 81.6 percent. Short-term recipients' greater employment stability and higher earnings on the job explain the disparity in total earnings. These findings are illustrated by comparing employment and earnings outcomes for each group, when only employed sample members are considered. First, as noted above, short-term recipients remained employed during a larger portion of the observation period than cyclers: 63.7 percent of quarters versus 59.8 percent. Second, short-term recipients earned, on average, $3,002 during each quarter of employment, more than $1,000 (or 55 percent) above the average for cyclers. This difference in average quarterly earnings suggests that short-term recipients worked at better jobs  with more hours of work and higher pay  compared with cyclers. This issue is addressed more directly in Section IV.D., which reports findings on job characteristics for the three groups, based on survey responses.

Once again, long-term recipients experienced the least success among the three groups. The typical long-term recipient earned a total of $10,022 during the four-year observation period, less than half of the average for short-term recipients and nearly $7,000 less than the mean for cyclers. Among the three groups, long-term recipients who worked for pay remained employed for the smallest percentage of quarters (44.9), but earned about the same per quarter of employment ($1,833). It should be noted, however, that cyclers did not fare much better than long-term recipients in this last measure, averaging only about 6 percent more in earnings per quarter employed. This finding underscores the difficulty that many cyclers may have encountered in advancing to well-paying jobs.

The last panel of indicators in the Employment section shows the percentage of quarters in the observation period in which sample members spent in one of the four welfare and employment statuses: (1) employment and no receipt of welfare benefits; (2) employment and receipt of welfare benefits; (3) no employment and receipt of welfare benefits; and (4) no recorded income from either employment or welfare. The first of these statuses may be viewed as the most self-sufficient. Although many welfare programs presently encourage recipients to combine work and welfare through such policies as expanded earned income disregards, quarters with both earnings and welfare benefits represent a more ambiguous status. While they may occur because the sample member received earnings and welfare simultaneously, a quarter with earnings and welfare could indicate a transition from welfare to employment, or less positive, a loss of employment and return to welfare. Quarters of welfare receipt and no employment represent the least beneficial outcome.

Finally, receipt of no measured income from earnings or welfare represents a particularly difficult status to interpret. Individuals in this status may have left welfare without employment and lived without a reliable source of income. However, this status may not indicate a lack of funds flowing into the household. For example, sample members in this status could actually be working out of state or in a job that is not reported to their state's unemployment insurance system. Alternatively, they could have exited welfare without employment because of marriage to or cohabitation with a person whose income was sufficient to support the family.

The percentages presented in this panel of Table 7 may be considered in two ways. First, one can directly compare the three groups' results for each status. Second, one can focus only on the portion of the observation period in which group members were employed  that measure is displayed as the average quarterly employment rate within the Employment section. For this second comparison, one would ask: In what proportion of their quarters of employment did sample members rely solely on earnings? In what proportion of their employed quarters did they combine work and welfare?

Cyclers' patterns of work and welfare indicate somewhat greater self-sufficiency than long-term recipients but considerably less than short-term recipients. Cyclers averaged relatively few quarters in the most self-sufficient status, employment without welfare. For cyclers, these quarters account for about one-fifth of the observation period and about 37 percent of the quarters in which they worked. (The latter percentage is calculated by dividing cyclers' percentage of quarters in which they were employed and received welfare benefits, 20.2 percent, by their average quarterly employment rate, 54.5 percent.) Long-term recipients worked without welfare for even less of the observation period, 8.6 percent and 25 percent of the quarters in which they worked for pay. Short-term recipients, on the other hand, typically received no welfare benefits during quarters in which they worked. On average, they spent about 38 percent of the observation period employed and without welfare, as well as more than 70 percent of their quarters of employment.

Cyclers also differed from short-term and long-term recipients in the extent to which they combined work and welfare. Cyclers received both earnings and welfare benefits during 34 percent of the quarters in the observation period and in more than 60 percent of the quarters in which they worked. These averages are much higher compared with both short-term and long-term recipients. Long-term recipients combined employment and welfare in 25.5 percent of the quarters, and short-term recipients combined work and welfare far less frequently, in only 14.1 percent of quarters in the observation period.

The remaining portion of the observation period consisted of quarters in which sample members experienced the most dependent status, jobless and receiving welfare benefits, and quarters in which they were in the more ambiguous status of receiving no income from earnings or welfare. As expected, long-term recipients spent the largest portion of the observation period on assistance and with no employment (60.1 percent) and short-term recipients recorded the smallest percentage (16.3 percent). The average for cyclers fell somewhere in between (33.5 percent). Short-term recipients were, by far, the group most likely to receive neither earnings nor welfare benefits (31.7 percent).

Table 7 also shows that cyclers remained more dependent on food stamps than short-term recipients. For example, cyclers averaged 34 months of foods stamps receipt, compared with just 19 months of receipt for short-term recipients. In fact, the receipt of food stamps among cyclers is closer to that among long-term recipients, who received 41 months of food stamps benefits on average. Furthermore, slightly less than half of all cyclers received food stamps over three-fourths or more of the observation period, that is, for 37 to 48 months. In contrast, the greatest proportion of short-term recipients (38 percent) received food stamps for 12 months or less.

Finally, Table 7 presents the averages for the three groups in total measured income from individual earnings, welfare, and food stamps during the observation period.(31) Note that earnings from other family members are not included, nor are Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) that can supplement personal earnings. The totals for the three groups are fairly similar  with cyclers receiving about 1 percent more in measured personal income than short-term recipients and about 9 percent less than long-term recipients. The primary difference is in sources of their income. As discussed above, short-term recipients received most of their income from employment (74 percent, not shown), compared with about one-half for cyclers and a little more than one-quarter of their measured income for long-term recipients. The similarity of income levels among the three groups underscores the difficulty that many members of each group experienced in finding jobs that paid more than welfare and food stamps.

In summary, cyclers tended to have short spells of welfare receipt, similar to short-term recipients, but they are more attached to the welfare system, similar to long-term recipients. Most cyclers worked for 9 or more quarters, the majority of the observation period, similar to short-term recipients. However, their level of earnings more closely resembled that of long-term recipients. Cyclers also were more likely than short- and long-term recipients to combine work and welfare. The difference between cyclers and short-term recipients appears to be that cyclers keep returning to welfare, somehow unable to sustain their families with employment alone as do short-term recipients.

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