The recidivism rate measures the extent to which individuals who leave TANF cash assistance return to the program within some specified time period. Because a key goal of the TANF program is to promote sustained self-sufficiency by ending dependence on assistance, the recidivism rate is an important measure of a state's success in achieving this goal.
Measurement issues. In defining the recidivism rate, it is necessary to specify the population that will be included. Recipients leave TANF assistance for a variety of reasons, including employment, full-family sanctions, time limits, and other reasons. If recipients leaving TANF for all of these reasons are included, a state's performance on this measure is likely to be more heavily affected by state policies than by its success in promoting self-sufficiency. For example, a state with many case closures due to a lifetime time limit is likely to have a relatively low recidivism rate. One way to try to level the playing field might be to limit this measure to those recipients who leave cash assistance due to employment. However, this approach raises its own set of problems; research shows that many more welfare recipients are employed after leaving welfare than administrative data records show as having closed their cases due to employment.
It may also be appropriate to limit the measure to cases that have closed for at least a minimum time period, in order to exclude those cases closed and then re-opened due to administrative churning (e.g., when a case is closed for failing to provide required information and re-opened a few days later when the client brings in the needed documentation). For example, in HHS-funded studies of TANF recipients who left assistance, state grantees were encouraged to define "leavers" as cases closed for at least two months, in order to minimize the effects of churning.
Another issue is that the members of a case may not all move on or off welfare together. For example, a case may be closed due to a full-family sanction, but the children in the case may later move into the custody of another family member and may receive assistance as a child-only case. A decision must be made whether recidivism means the return to welfare of the case head, of any adult in the case, or any member of the household, including children.
Data issues. At this point in time, state administrative records are the only reliable data source for measuring a recidivism rate. Because states routinely track the months that individuals receive TANF assistance, state administrative data should be of relatively high quality and available on a timely basis. While states are required to track the reasons individuals leave assistance, this measure would be somewhat more complex for states to calculate if they had to distinguish whether certain types of "leavers" (such as those subject to time limits or sanctions) - rather than if all leavers - were included in the rate.
Fairness issues. It may be difficult to develop a recidivism measure that treats states fairly and equitably. As noted above, state need standards and grant levels affect the ability and willingness of recipients who work part-time or at low wages to continue to receive assistance. This in turn affects an individual's job experience level (and the likelihood of finding another job quickly) when they leave assistance, as well as the relative attractiveness of returning to assistance if a job is lost. For example, individuals who leave welfare in a state with relatively high grant levels and/or generous income disregards may be less likely to return to the rolls - regardless of the effectiveness of the state's welfare-to-work program - because they are working at relatively high wages or for a greater number of hours at the time they leave welfare. Conversely, the higher grant level may make it more worthwhile to return to assistance if a job is lost. In a state with low grant levels and/or low earnings disregards, on the other hand, individuals will be forced to leave cash assistance when they find jobs even if they are low-wage, part-time, or temporary. With relatively less job experience, this group may be more likely to return to cash assistance over the long run, or they may feel it is not worth the hassle of returning to assistance for a small grant amount. Differences in state sanction policies and time limit rules will also affect how states perform on this type of measure. In addition, those states with a full-family sanction policy will have a different group in their "leaver" population than a state that only removes the adult from the case when a sanction is enacted.