Status Report on Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform, 2002. Grants to States and Localities to Study Welfare Reform Outcomes, with an Emphasis on TANF Applicants and Diversion (1998 and 1999): Synthesis of Findings


Since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), there has been a significant drop in the federal cash assistance caseloads. During this period, a large number of families have left welfare, leading to great interest among researchers and policymakers in studying the circumstances of welfare "leavers." However, much of the caseload decline may be due to changes in entries onto welfare, so it is also important for researchers to look at individuals and families who have applied for cash assistance.

To this end, ASPE funded ten different studies that have either focused exclusively on applicants and/or potential applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program or included an applicant component within the study. Six of these ten studies were funded through a request for applications from states and large counties in April 1999 with an emphasis on the study of applicants and potential applicants to the TANF program, including those who were formally or informally diverted from TANF.

The ten ASPE grantees with an applicant component to their projects included: Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, and two consortia of counties in the Bay Area of California (Contra Costa and Alameda Counties and San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz Counties). Eight of these grantees have released final reports detailing their findings, allowing us to develop this brief synthesis of the studies of TANF applicants and diversion. New York and Washington are expected to release final reports in Summer 2002. In addition, researchers at the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be releasing the Wave Two survey report of the applicant study in Milwaukee County in Summer 2002.

As with the ASPE-funded studies of welfare "leavers," each of the grantees include both administrative and survey data, with some of the surveys including multiple waves. ASPE provided technical assistance to grantees while allowing them to determine the cohorts to be studied, the administrative data measures to be used, and the surveys to be administered. This synthesis of ASPE's applicant and diversion studies has many of the same inherent difficulties as previous syntheses of ASPE's leavers studies. These include variations in the time period studied by the grantees, as well as the period of time between the application period and the administration of the survey. Further, each survey was developed by a separate set of researchers in each state or locality, leading to differences in measured outcomes.

In addition to these issues, it became apparent from the beginning of the project that it would much more difficult to facilitate cross-study comparisons across the applicant grantees than it was for the "leavers" grantees. In both sets of studies, grantees had significant discretion over their research questions and construction of their surveys. However, while studies of TANF leavers used a common definition of leaver (as those who left TANF and remained off the rolls for at least two months), it was not possible to use a common definition of "applicant" or "diverted" populations because of the significant differences in states' application procedures and availability of administrative data on applications that are only partially completed.

While the definitions of the populations of applicants and divertees vary significantly across grantees, they can be divided into five general categories, as described below and summarized in Table 1:

  1. Participating in the state or county's formal diversion program. Many states have implemented formal programs to divert TANF applicants from entering cash assistance. The most well-known of these programs are those that pay grantees a one-time lump-sum payment in lieu of enrolling them in the TANF cash assistance program. Several of the states and counties receiving grants in FY 1998 and FY 1999 to study diversion have implemented a formal diversion program. However, only one of the ASPE grantees included here, Texas, decided to study formal diversion programs, specifically participants in the state's one-time lump-sum payment program. Others did not study this population, partially because of low participation in the programs.
  2. Begin the application process but fail to complete it. Many states have the ability, either by administrative data or through intercept interviews within the welfare office, to begin collecting data on individuals as soon as they enter the welfare office and provide contact information to an intake worker. If researchers are able to begin tracking applicants at this point, then those individuals who do not complete their applications for whatever reason are often considered diverted applicants. This was a popular method for defining divertees among the ASPE grantees included in this synthesis; six of the eight chose to include this population of applicants in their sample of diverted applicants.
  3. Complete the application process and determined to be eligible for TANF but do not enroll in TANF. Some individuals may complete their application process but decide not to enroll in TANF, even after being found eligible to receive cash benefits. At this point, the completed application is often already in many states' administrative data systems, making tracking of these individuals possible. Four of the ASPE grantees that have released findings included these individuals in their sample.
  4. Ineligible for TANF for non-financial reasons. Often TANF applicants meet the income eligibility requirements of the TANF program but are denied benefits for other reasons. These non-financial reasons for denial may include: refusal or inability to participate in required job search or job readiness programs, lack of cooperation with the child support enforcement agency, and failure to meet particular requirements set in place by states or localities. Five of the ASPE grantees included here targeted these individuals as diverted applicants. There may have been some overlap between this population and those who completed their application but did not enroll for unknown reasons.
  5. Receiving food stamps and/or Medicaid and appear to be eligible for TANF but do not receive TANF. Two of the grantees included in this synthesis - Florida and South Carolina - used administrative data from the Medicaid and/or Food Stamp programs to help formulate a population of diverted applicants. While the two grantees approached the task differently, the basic theory was to use these data files to find a proxy for TANF divertees. If an individual received Medicaid or food stamps, appeared to be income eligible for TANF, and had not received TANF for a set period of time, then a reasonable assumption was made that they were informally diverted from receiving TANF. While there are many complicating issues surrounding this method, it is one way to try and identify individuals who were diverted from TANF before ever entering the welfare office to apply.

Despite the differences in the definitions of the study populations among the ASPE grantees, some themes have emerged across the studies. Below are cross-state findings in a number of number of different areas. First, there are data on the characteristics of applicants across the various study area. Next, outcomes of the applicants are synthesized in the areas of employment and earnings, participation in government programs, and eventual receipt of TANF cash assistance. Finally, the applicants' experiences with the TANF application process in their state or county are cited.