Status of Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform, 2000. Findings from ASPE-Funded Leavers Studies (Grants to States and Localities to Study Welfare Outcomes)


Welfare caseload numbers released in August showed that the number of welfare recipients has decreased from 14.1 million in January 1993 to 6.3 million in December 1999 - a drop of 56 percent, or 7.8 million. Nearly three-quarters of this overall decline has occurred since the welfare reform law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) was enacted in 1996; 1999 caseloads were roughly half of what they were in 1996. As the caseloads have fallen there has been widespread interest in the circumstances of recipients who have left welfare. How are they faring without cash assistance? Are they working? Are they moving out of poverty? To what extent do they return to welfare? To what extent do they continue to need and to receive assistance and supportive services through other programs?

In an attempt to answer these questions, ASPE awarded approximately $2.9 million in grants to states and counties in FY 1998 to study the outcomes of welfare reform on individuals and families who leave the TANF program, who apply for cash welfare but are never enrolled because of non-financial eligibility requirements or diversion programs, and/or who appear to be eligible but are not enrolled. The grants were awarded to ten states and three large counties or consortia of counties (Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin; and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Los Angeles County, California, and San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara Counties, California). Separate but somewhat comparable studies were also funded in Wisconsin, through the Institute for Research on Poverty, and South Carolina, resulting in a total of 15 studies of former recipients funded in FY 1998. (1)

These states and counties represent a diverse range of state policies and underlying economic and demographic conditions. In addition, study designs varied across the sites. In most studies, researchers are using a combination of linked administrative data sets and surveys of former recipients to monitor the economic status and general well-being of families leaving welfare, but each grantee followed its own proposed study methodology. In general, the grantees' research questions can be grouped into eight broad research topic areas: employment and earnings, case closures and recidivism, other income supports, health insurance, child care, child well-being, barriers to self-sufficiency, insecurity/deprivation, and other topics.

ASPE took certain steps to promote comparability across the studies, including developing a consensus definition of "leavers" as those who remain off welfare for at least two months, encouraging researchers to report outcomes for "single-parent" leavers if different from the entire study population, and gaining agreement to exclude or disaggregate closures of "child-only" cases from the study population. Brief summaries of the projects can be found at < A short paper synthesizing the findings to date of these ASPE-funded studies is being prepared by the Urban Institute and is expected to be released in the Fall, 2000. (When it is available, it will be posted at A more comprehensive report is expected by Summer 2001.

As of July 2000, 11 (2) of the 15 studies initiated in FY 1998 had released reports of preliminary outcomes based on administrative data findings for an early cohort of families that left welfare as between 1995 and 1998. Findings from these studies focus principally on employment and earnings, returns to cash assistance, and program participation in Medicaid and food stamps. Four (3) of these 11 studies have also released reports containing both administrative data and survey data findings for a later cohort who left welfare after the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Preliminary survey findings supplement the administrative data in the areas of household income and experiences of material hardship of former recipients. While cross-site differences reflect a variety of conditions (4), it should also be noted that outcomes can vary significantly across various subgroups. Highlights of aggregate findings for "average" welfare leavers follow. (5) It should be noted that the findings are for single-parent leavers except where noted otherwise.

Employment and Earnings

  • Employment

    Based on administrative data from ten sites for an early cohort, approximately 45 to 65 percent of former TANF recipients were working after leaving TANF. As shown in Table 1, most studies reported that 50 to 60 percent of leavers were employed in the first quarter after exit. Between 62 and 75 percent were ever employed in the 12-month period following exit, while 35 to 40 percent of leavers were employed in (but not necessarily continuously (6)) all four quarters, indicating that many former recipients experienced spells of unemployment as well as employment. Results from four states reporting on two or more cohorts were mixed in terms of the stability of employment rates for later, in relation to earlier, cohorts - one state had higher employment rates for the later cohort, one state had lower employment rates, and two states had similar rates across the cohorts.

    Survey data from four sites found that self-reported employment rates were between one and ten percentage points higher than the rates based on administrative data. This discrepancy is not unexpected, considering that the administrative data findings are based on quarterly earnings records maintained by the state's unemployment insurance (UI) program, which do not cover earnings from self-employment, employment in the military or federal government, certain agricultural employment, and jobs across state boundaries.

  • Earnings

    According to administrative data from ten study areas, mean quarterly earnings in the quarter immediately following exit from TANF ranged from about $2,200 to over $3,400 for those leavers with earnings. Table 2 shows that in every location earnings rose steadily over the course of the year following exit (7) to mean quarterly earnings in the $2,400 to $3,600 range. Data from three surveys not displayed on the table found that respondents who were employed reported average monthly earnings ranging from $958 (at 6 to 8 months after exit) to $1,101 (at 24 to 36 months after exit). The mean quarterly earnings observed in these studies suggest that annual earnings of employed welfare leavers were low, averaging no more than $10,000 to $13,000, despite the fact that many former recipients had jobs involving full-time work.

Table 1.

Percentage of Leavers Employed from Administrative Data Records
Grantee & Cohort CY(Qtr) Exit Qtr 1st Qtr post exit 2nd Qtr post exit 3rd Qtr post exit 4th Qtr post exit Ever employed within 1 year Employed all 4 quarters
Administrative Data

Los Angeles 96(4)

45.9 47.2 45.5 46.3 46.6   34.8

San Mateo 96(4)

50.5 49.6 49.9 48.4 50.3 67.1  

New York 97(1)

50.0 50.0 49.0 48.0 48.0 62.0 40.0

Washington 96(4)

55.0 52.0 52.0 55.0 56.0 68.2  

Illinois 7/97-12/98

55.3 54.0 53.3 53.5 54.5 69.5 38.9

Arizona 96(4)

60.9 58.2 55.8 55.1 55.4 74.7  

Missouri 96(4)

62.5 58.4 57.8 58.7 58.1    

Cuyahoga 96(3)

  59.3 54.2 55.8 56.8 71.7 40.3

Wisconsin 7/95-6/96

63.7 63.2 61.5 61.3 61.6 75.3  

Georgia 97(1)

  64.2 60.1 59.2 53.3 73.9  

Notes: A recipient is considered "employed" if she or he has any earnings in UI-covered employment within the state, with the exception that the Cuyahoga and Los Angeles studies require a minimum of $100 per quarter and the Washington study counts earnings reported to the welfare system in addition to earnings in the UI system.



Table 2.

Mean and Median Quarterly Earnings of Employed Leavers (Administrative Data)
Grantee & Cohort CY(Qtr) Qr before exit Exit Qtr 1st Qtr post exit 2nd Qtr post exit 3rd Qtr post exit 4th Qtr post exit

Missouri 96(4)

  $2,130 $2,185 $2,346 $2,372 $2,685

Georgia 97(1)

    $2,193 $2,272 $2,549 $2,389

Arizona 96(4)

$1,277 $2,276 $2,415 $2,497 $2,519 $2,862

Wisconsin 7/95-6/96

  $2,155 $2,440 $2,509 $2,563 $2,686

Illinois 7/97-12/98

$1,916 $2,420 $2,663 $2,746 $2,846 $2,959

Washington 96(4)

$1,598 $2,448 $2,722 $2,862 $2,938 $3,196

Cuyahoga 96(5)

    $2,756 $2,756 $2,891 $2,952

San Mateo 96(4)

$1,998 $3,056 $3,124 $3,407 $3,457 $3,647

New York 97(1)

  $3,067 $3,393 $3,402 $3,877 $3,602

Los Angeles 96(3)

$2,876 $3,245 $3,414 $3,387 $3,521 3,576

Missouri 96(4)

  $1,913 $1,996 $2,171 $2,200 $2,535

Georgia 97(1)

    $2,051 $2,097 $2,384 $2,218

Arizona 96(4)

$1,024 $2,179 $2,371 $2,351 $2,389 $2,754

Wisconsin 7/95-6/96

  $2,116 $2,383 $2,437 $2, 460 $2,602

Illinois 7/97-12/98

$1,624 $2,223 $2,471 $2,527 $2,614 $2,720

Washington 96(4)

$1,279 $2,299 $2,526 $2,672 $2,646 $2,923

Cuyahoga 96(4)

    $2,587 $2,620 $2,729 $2,776

San Mateo 96(4)

$1,598 $2,815 $3,104 $3,290 $3,521 $3,572

Los Angeles 96(4)

$2,695 $3,108 $3,248 $3,156 $3,303 $3,290

Notes: Excludes leavers without earnings in the quarter. Earnings are reported in nominal dollars, with the exception of San Mateo (November 1998 $). New York did not report median earnings; and the District of Columbia did not report any earnings data.


Program Participation

  • Returns to TANF

    Families in the early cohort who left cash assistance between 1996 and 1998 did so before they were affected by either the federal or state time limits on benefit receipt. Thus they had the option of returning to cash assistance as needed. Administrative data from eight reports, displayed in Table 3, show that between five and 20 percent of welfare leavers returned to welfare within one quarter after exit. Over the next three months, an additional four to seven percent of leavers returned in most states, bringing the total population of former recipients receiving AFDC/TANF to between 10 and 28 percent at two quarters after exit. The recidivism rate increased only slightly over the next two quarters (with returns to welfare ranging from 12 to 29 percent at 12 months after exit), but the proportion who ever received assistance for at least one month during the first 12 months after exit was somewhat higher (ranging from 23 to 35 percent).

    Survey data on returns to TANF are fairly similar to the administrative data. In addition, survey data also found that at least one half of those who returned to TANF did so for a job-related reason, such as job loss or decreases on work hours or wages. Other common reasons for returning to TANF included divorce or separation from partner, pregnancy or birth of a new child, re-compliance with program regulations, loss of other income, problems with child care, and problems with health or medical benefits.

  • Medicaid and Health Insurance


Administrative data on Medicaid enrollment from the eight studies that reported on this measure showed dramatic variations across states, unlike the relatively consistent findings on employment, earnings and recidivism. As shown in Table 4, three months after exit, the Medicaid enrollment rate for the early cohort of adult leavers ranged from 24 to 76 percent, with most studies reporting rates between 35 and 60 percent. Participation in Medicaid declined over time in the year following exit in over half the states (dropping as much as 10 to 20 percentage points for adult leavers between the first and fourth quarters after exit), but remained relatively stable in three studies. Enrollment rates among "continuous leavers," i.e., those who do not return to cash assistance, were even lower, primarily because this group excludes leavers who return to TANF, most of whom are re-enrolled in Medicaid at the time of their return to cash assistance.

Survey data provides more complete information about the status of health insurance coverage. Data from the four studies reveal that one-third to one-half (33 to 53 percent) of adult leavers were covered by Medicaid at the time of interview, about one-fifth to one-third (20 to 34 percent)

Table 3.

Percentage of Adult Leavers Receiving TANF
Grantee & Cohort CY(Qtr) 1st Qtr (3 mos) post exit 2nd Qtr (6 mos) post exit 3rd Qtr (9 mos) post exit 4th Qtr (12 mos) post exit Ever receiving within 1 year
Administrative Data

Georgia 97(1)

    14.3 13.4  

Arizona 96(4)

4.8 13.6 17.6 17.2 28.4

D. C. 97(4)

5.6 10.4 14.0 16.5  

San Mateo 96(4)

7.7 12.1 11.6 12.3 22.7

New York 97(1)


New York 97(1)


Washington 96(4)

12.0 19.0 22.0 23.0 29.8

Missouri 96(4)

12.4 18.6 20.8 20.6  

Wisconsin 7/95-6/96

14.3 19.3 18.6 17.0 27.6

Illinois 7/97-12/98

16.2 18.6 17.5 16.3 28.9

Cuyahoga 96(3)

20.4 27.5 29.6 28.7 35.3

Notes: Grantees measuring program participation by month - Arizona, the District of Columbia, San Mateo, New York and Illinois - are likely to report lower program participation than grantees measuring participation over a three-month quarter. Also, there is potential one-month discrepancy in how grantees define months and quarters "post exit," because some grantees define "month of exit" as the last month of benefit receipt, while others define it as the first month without cash assistance. These methodological differences have a particularly B effect on measurement of TANF receipt three months/one quarter after exit, and so differences in the first column of Table 3 should be viewed with caution.


were covered by employer or other health insurance, and about one-third (26 to 41 percent) of former adult recipients had no health insurance coverage. These studies suggest that there is little difference from state to state in private health insurance rates and that the difference in uninsurance rates among welfare leavers is due to Medicaid. State to state differences in Medicaid enrollment rates result from policy choices affecting Medicaid eligibility rules and

Table 4.

Percentage of Leavers Enrolled in Medicaid(Administrative Data)
Grantee & Cohort CY(Qtr) Exit Quarter /month 1 st Qtr (3 mos) post exit 2 nd Qtr (6 mos) post exit 3 rd Qtr (9 mos) post exit 4 th Qtr (12 mos) post exit Ever receiving within 1 year
Administrative Data

San Mateo 96(4)

  24.4 28.2 22.9 23.7 47.1

-Children covered

  25.9 30.6 26.0 26.2 48.4

D.C. 97(4)- Anyone on case (m)

97.2 35.4 37.7 36.3 37.9  

New York 97(1)


-Children covered


- Anyone on case


- Anyone on case


Cuyahoga 96(3)

  41.4 41.7 39.6 37.7 55.3
Washington 97(4) ** 99.0 53.0 40.0 46.0 43.0  

Illinois 7/97-12/98

41.8 57.0 51.7 47.4 40.0 68.8

Arizona 96(4)

  57.8 54.2 49.3 46.5 84.9

Wisconsin 7/95-6/96

  75.9 69.4 66.0 63.1 81.5

Notes: These rates measure enrollment of the single adult head who left TANF, except where noted as rate of leavers whose "children are covered" or where "anyone on case" (child or adult) is covered. As noted in Table 3, above, measures of participation by month - reported by San Mateo, Illinois and Arizona, and New York for "anyone on case" - are likely to be lower than measures of participation over a three-month quarter, and "month of exit" may mean first month without cash assistance or last month receiving cash assistance.


application procedures, and/or state and local administrative practices affecting families transitioning off welfare. Survey data from two states (discussed in the section on Material Hardship and displayed on Table 7 below) show the consequences of lack of health insurance coverage.


As expected, children are covered under Medicaid (or the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)) at considerably higher rates than adults. Survey data from four sites showed enrollment rates for children of leavers at six to 27 percentage points higher than rates for adults. One-half to two-thirds (51 to 67 percent) of leavers reported Medicaid/SCHIP coverage for their children. Similar to the adult rates, about one-fifth (20 to 23 percent) of leavers reported that their children had insurance coverage other than Medicaid. Unlike the adults, however, children were somewhat less likely than adults to have such insurance in the form of employer-sponsored coverage, and more likely to have it in the form of "other" insurance, including coverage through a non-custodial parent. Finally, between 11 and 29 percent of leavers reported that their children had no health insurance, although the majority of them should have been eligible for either Medicaid or SCHIP.

  • Food Stamps

The percentage of leavers participating in the Food Stamp Program was lower than the percentage enrolled in Medicaid across almost all study sites. Administrative data from eight of nine studies reporting on food stamp use by the early cohort, shown in Table 5, found that roughly one-third to one-half (34 to 57 percent) of former cash assistance recipients received food stamps immediately after exit. Survey data from two studies had similar findings, reporting 33 to 50 percent participation six to eight months after exit. By one year after exit, food stamp participation rates had fallen to between 33 and 40 percent in seven of the nine studies. The percentage of leavers ever receiving food stamps in the first year after exit typically ranged from 57 to 67 percent. One study proved to be the exception to these trends - only 9 percent of leavers were participating in the first quarter after exit, and 14 percent in the fourth quarter. About 28 percent of leavers in that study ever received food stamps within one year after exit. The following section on Material Hardship and Table 7 below address the prevalence of food shortages reported in survey data from two states.

Poverty and Material Hardship

  • Household Income and Poverty Status

    Information on total household incomes of welfare leavers is currently available only from the four studies with survey data. Across these studies, total monthly household income averaged from about $1,050 to over $1,400, with median household incomes even lower. See Table 6. Information on the distribution of income available from two studies showed that very few

Table 5.

Percentage of Leavers Receiving Food Stamps
Grantee & Cohort CY(Qtr) 1st Qtr post exit 2nd Qtr post exit 3rd Qtr post exit 4th Qtr post exit Ever receiving within 1 year
Administrative Data - Early Cohorts

San Mateo 96(4)

9.3 15.4 13.4 14.1 27.5

New York 97(4)


New York 97(4) (month)


D. C. 97(4)

33.9 35.0 34.2 34.3  

Illinois 97(3)

35.5 39.4 37.5 34.5  

Arizona 96(4)

38.0 37.3 36.7 34.2 67.2


42.5 42.2 41.2 39.4 57.3

Washington 97(4) **

46.0 42.0 40.0 36.0  

Wisconsin 95-96

51.3 45.8 42.5 40.0 62.8

Missouri 96(4)

57.3 46.7 42.7 40.1  
Administrative Data -- Later Cohorts

Arizona 98(1)

38.6 38.6 37.6 35.0 66.5

Illinois 98(1)

34.2 35.1 34.8    

Illinois 7/97-12/98

33.0 34.8 34.2 32.8 56.0

Washington 98(4) **

47.0 42.0      

Survey Data

  6-8 mos   26-34 mos Ever Since Exit

Illinois Dec 98**


Washington Oct 98


Missouri 96(4) **

      47 80

Note: As noted in Table 3, measures of participation by month - reported by New York (second row), DC, Illinois (for all cohorts), and Arizona (for both cohorts) - are likely to be lower than measures of participation over a three-month quarter, and "month of exit" may mean first month without cash assistance or last month receiving cash assistance.
** The Washington administrative data are for all leavers, including two-parent leavers. In Washington, both adult recipients in a two-parent household are tracked as two, separate members; and such recipients account for 19.1 and 26.5 percent of adult recipients in Washington in cohort 97(4) and cohort 98(4), respectively.


leavers (2 to 4 percent) reported $0 in household income, while about half (43 to 54 percent) reported incomes of between $500 and $1,500 per month. In one study, eight percent of leavers had household incomes in excess of $3,000 per month two and a half years after exit from welfare.

Two state reports calculated a poverty rate for former recipients by multiplying monthly incomes by 12 and comparing these annual incomes to the federal poverty thresholds by family size. The estimated poverty rate of former recipients was the same in each state - 58 percent - despite the fact that one state measured poverty six to eight months after exit, and the other measured it two and a half years after exit.

All four studies provided some information about the sources of household income. Earnings were the single largest income source, with the leaver's earnings accounting for 60 to 65 percent of household income across three studies, and earnings of the leaver and/or others in the household accounting for 80 to 86 percent of total household income. Other contributors to aggregate household income included TANF benefits, child support, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.


  • Material Hardship

Across the three states that measured food insecurity, approximately one-fourth of former welfare recipients reported that they did not have enough to eat, or they cut meal sizes or skipped meals in the period since leaving welfare. Table 7 shows that in two of the sites, food shortages were somewhat more common among leavers than on-going TANF recipients, and of about the same frequency before and after exit in the third site.

Former recipients also reported problems with housing arrangements, although somewhat less frequently than food shortages. The most common problems were loss of utilities (12 to 14 percent of leavers across three studies) and being forced to move (13 to 17 percent across two studies). Less often, former recipients were evicted or went to a homeless shelter. An estimated eight percent of former recipients in two states reported that their children were forced to live elsewhere, and three percent of leavers in one state reported that their children went into foster care. None of the states reported that separations of children from the family occurred more or less frequently after exit than while the families received welfare benefits.

Finally, between one-quarter and one-third (24 to 31 percent) of leavers in two sites reported that since leaving welfare they or someone in their household was unable to get needed medical attention because they could not afford it. This may reflect the fact that 40 and 36 percent of leavers survey respondents in those two states, respectively, reported being uninsured. However, 14 and 26 percent of these same respondents also reported an inability to get needed medical attention during the last six months of welfare receipt, when almost all respondents should have had health coverage through the Medicaid program.

Table 6.

Total Household Income
  Illinois Dec 98** Washington Oct 98 Arizona 98(1) Missouri 96(4) **
Survey Data

Timing of Interview (Months post exit)

6-8 mos 6-8 mos 12-18 mos 26-34 mos

Mean (Median) Household Cash Income

$1,054 ($895) $1,208 ($1,000) ~$1,364* $1,427 ($1,166)

Mean Income, including Food Stamps

Income Distribution


4     2

1 to $500

24     20


35     23


19     20


7     15


11     20
Poverty Status

<=100% of Poverty Threshold

  58   58

Poverty Threshold

  42   42
Median Household Income, by Number of Earners

No earner households

$414     $435

1-earner households

$1,000     $1,180

2-earner households

$2,008     $2,300

Notes: * The Arizona study reported household income including food stamps as income. Cash income was estimated as 93 percent of total reported income (based on information provided for a similar group of leavers).
** Illinois and Missouri percentages are for all leavers, including a small percentage of two-parent leavers. Illinois also reported mean (and median) household income for single parent leavers as $964 (and $800) per month.


Table 7.

Percentage of Leavers Reporting Material Hardship (Survey Data)
  Illinois Dec 98** Washington Oct 98 Arizona 98(1) ( )
Since exit (leavers) 6 mos pre- exit (leavers recall) Last 6 mos (leaver sample) Last 6 mos (TANF sample) Since exit (leavers) 6 mos pre-exit (leavers recall)
Food Shortages

Not enough to eat

        24 30

Cut meal size some time or often

25 24 30 23*    

Skipped meal some time or often

23 18*    

Went without food all day at least once

    14 9*    

Receive food from shelter or food bank

    35 44 21 29

Received meals/food from shelter

12 15        
Housing Problems

Utilities cut off because could not pay

14 27 12 12 12 18

Had to move because could not pay

13 15     17 21


    7 3*    

Without a place to live at least once

    13 10    

Without a place to live sometime/often

    4.5 2.3*    

Went to homeless shelter

3.0 3.5 1.3 1.5 4 3

Lived on street/car

1.0 2.1        

Children forced to live elsewhere

8 9     8 9

Children in foster care at least once

    3 2    
Medical hardship

Unable to get needed medical attention

31 26     24 14

Notes: "Pre-exit" and "post-exit" experiences were based on samples of former and current recipients in Washington, and on "pre-exit" and "post-exit" questions of leaver samples in Illinois and Arizona.
* Statistically significant difference between leavers and ongoing recipients. Note that Washington also asked whether both adults and children in the household... cut meal size, skipped meals, went day without food... and the percentages were much lower (13, 4, and 1 percent for leavers, and 16, 5, and 2 percent for ongoing recipients).
( ) Arizona data include leavers off one month or longer.
** Illinois data are for all leavers, including a small percentage of two-parent leavers.


ther Outcomes Data

The descriptive statistics highlighted above provide some important insights into the outcomes and well-being of individuals and families leaving welfare. However, they do not represent the sum total of the rich administrative and survey data collected by states and counties under the ASPE-funded grants. Links to most of the individual state and county reports can be found at < The forthcoming synthesis report by the Urban Institute will be posted to the same web site. In addition, ASPE is working collaboratively with the grantees and a technical assistance contractor to make the grantees' welfare outcomes data files available to researchers for secondary analyses. As it becomes available, information on how to secure access to these data files can be found on the ASPE-sponsored web page on Welfare Leavers and Diversion Studies at <