Status Report on Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform, 2001. General Strategies for Understanding the Outcomes of Welfare Reform


In the four and a half years since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was signed into law, the Department has been able to make significant contributions to the evidence being gathered and analyzed about the implementation and effects of welfare reform, due in large part to the infusion of Policy Research funding dedicated to studying welfare outcomes. Findings are now available on how those who left welfare are faring - their employment status, their wages and earnings, the job supports they are using, their poverty status, recidivism rates, material hardship, and family well-being. Information from studies of individuals and their families who are formally or informally diverted from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are just becoming available. Projects examining the characteristics of the TANF caseload (i.e., "stayers"), including potential barriers to employment that welfare recipients may face, are planned for this year.

A substantial body of research about the outcomes of welfare reform has been and is being conducted by government- and foundation-funded researchers. The Department has paid careful attention to identifying on-going research, evaluation, and data activities which could be enhanced or modified, to identifying activities being funded or planned by other entities, to identifying knowledge gaps, and to avoiding unnecessary duplication. We have sought to create a portfolio of studies and strategies across a wide spectrum of welfare outcomes policy interests. In an effort to optimize the potential to answer the fundamental questions about welfare reform, we have used the targeted Policy Research funds to fully fund some projects, to fund specific portions of some larger studies, and to co-fund with other partners, including federal and state agencies, still other projects.

In keeping with the recommendations of the conferees, our research agenda over the past three years has covered a broad array of topics that complement other public and private efforts to assess the outcomes of welfare reform. We have funded studies that measure outcomes for a broad population of low-income families, examine diversion practices, and measure family hardship and well-being including the utilization of other support programs. Projects also are in place to assess the effects of welfare reform on current, former and potential welfare recipients and other special populations (e.g., those with mental health and substance abuse problems, people with disabilities, and immigrant families) affected by state TANF policies. Our plans for 2001 include studying those who remain on public assistance. Some of our research projects involve the collection and use of state-specific surveys and state and federal administrative data. We are also making explicit attempts to increase state and local capacity for data collection efforts. In addition, we are working to facilitate greater comparability in state and local level studies and continue to provide leadership in national-level survey work. Specific projects initiated over the past three years and our plans for 2001 activities are highlighted in the following chapters.

Despite the breadth and scope of the Department's welfare reform research agenda, significant questions about the implementation and outcomes of welfare reform remain, across a broad range of interests and perspectives. For example, since welfare reform has been implemented in the context of a strong national economy, we know little about the effect of welfare reform in other economic circumstances. There is wide variation in the design and application of policies across states, between local sites, and even from worker-to-worker. State policies and organizational structures continue to evolve. In some cases, state responsibilities are further devolved and/or contracted out to for- or non-profit entities. Little is known about individual reform strategies and what works best for whom. We know little about low-income families who do not become welfare recipients, or about the people who continue to receive cash assistance, even as the federal five-year time limit on cash benefits comes close. Many variables affect the outcomes of welfare reform, from welfare policies to the economy, and these variables often have confounding effects.