Status Report on Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform, 2002. General Strategies for Understanding the Outcomes of Welfare Reform


The dedication of research funds to studying welfare outcomes has enabled the Department to create a research, evaluation and data strategy designed to document the implementation of welfare reform and its effects, and to add to and enhance the information about welfare reform outcomes that is available to the Congress and other interested parties. Overall, our focus has been on creating an integrated picture of the low-income population, especially low-income families with children, combined with broader analyses of the economic condition, health and well-being, socio-demographic characteristics, and the social service needs of low-income individuals, families, and children. We believe this is consistent with both the Conference Committee's directives and with the far-reaching recommendations of the Panel on Data and Methods for Measuring the Effects of Changes in Social Welfare Programs.

There is a broad array of research about welfare reform being funded by the Department and other public and private sources. To optimize the potential that the targeted funds will increase the Department's understanding of the outcomes of welfare reform, ASPE has created, often with other funding partners involved, a portfolio of studies and strategies. Careful attention has been paid to identifying on-going research, evaluation, and data activities which could be enhanced or modified, identifying activities being funded or planned by other entities that might provide joint-funding opportunities, to identifying knowledge gaps, and to avoiding unnecessary duplication. We have used the targeted research funds to fully fund some projects, to fund specific portions of some larger studies, and to co-fund with other public and private agencies yet other projects. As a result, our research, evaluation and data activities cover a wide spectrum of welfare outcomes policy interests.

In keeping with the recommendations of the conferees, our research agenda over the past four years has covered a broad array of topics and approaches that complement other public and private efforts to assess the outcomes of welfare reform. We have funded or co-funded projects to study economic supports for poor families, children and youth, family formation, special populations and local service delivery issues, and cross-cutting topics. We have funded or co-funded competitive grant programs; projects to improve state data collection, comparability or capacity-building and analytic projects on welfare-related topics. We have funded or are funding projects that measure outcomes for welfare leavers, examine diversion practices, study the characteristics of the TANF caseload (or "stayers"), 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., child-only cases, people with mental health and substance abuse problems and other disabilities, immigrant families) affected by state TANF policies. Our specific activities and plans in each of the areas recommended by the Conference Committee are summarized below.

Despite the breadth and scope of these efforts, from a research perspective our knowledge is still quite limited in many areas, and many factors can limit what research can accomplish. For example, 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 and, in some cases, state responsibilities are further devolved. We know little about low-income families who do not become welfare recipients, and people who leave assistance can be difficult to track over time. Many variables other than welfare policies (such as the economy) affect the outcomes of welfare reform, and these variables often have confounding effects. Because of these factors, the ability of research, evaluation, and data to completely answer questions is always limited.