Leaver studies are useful tools for monitoring the well-being of families that have been exposed to TANF and have left the rolls. They can help policy makers identify the problems that families who have left welfare are facing, and the ongoing capacity built by states and the research community will provide a baseline for formulating and evaluating future reforms.
This paper examines the methodologies used in a large set of leaver studies, identifies preferred practices for conducting such studies, and discusses the implications of research methods for the interpretations of the findings reported in these studies.
Leaver studies rely on two types of data: (1) linked administrative records from welfare programs, other low-income assistance programs, and state unemployment insurance systems, and (2) survey data. The quality of the information garnered from administrative data depends on how well the data systems are linked as well as the coverage of these systems. In general, leaver studies do not describe the methods they used to link data from multiple sources. Furthermore, although the employment of former welfare recipients is an important outcome, this information comes from state UI records. Even with a perfect match to welfare program data, state UI records will understate the level of employment of welfare leavers because a nontrivial portion of jobs are not reported to the state's UI system (jobs out of state, self-employment, as well as some domestic and agricultural work).
Surveys of leavers provide a broader set of information than administrative data on the well-being of families that have left welfare. However, the quality of survey data depend on the accuracy of the information garnered from respondents and the representativeness of the completed survey sample. Indeed, it is reasonable to expect that leavers who can be located and who choose to respond to a survey may be better off than other leavers.
Leaver studies that examine the same cohort of leavers using both administrative and survey data present a more complete picture of the status of leavers than studies that rely on only a single source. Although both sources have their limitations, combining information from the two sources can help researchers and policy makers to better assess the findings. For example, it is useful to obtain information on employment and program participation in surveys that is also available in administrative data. The survey data can be used to assess the extent of underreporting of employment in UI wage records, while the administrative data on program participation can be used to assess if respondents are responding accurately to survey questions.
In addition, nonresponse bias is potentially an important problem in leaver studies. By using administrative data available for both survey respondents and nonrespondents, researchers can gauge the extent to which respondents differ from leavers in general. In addition, one can also obtain a sense of the extent of nonresponse bias by comparing the responses of easily interviewed cases with those of cases that were hard to locate or initially refused to respond.
Finally, states can build on these studies by repeating them for new cohorts of leavers or by following existing cohorts over time. Studying new cohorts allows comparison of whether the status of leavers is changing as policies become more fully implemented and time limits are reached. Reinterviewing or analyzing administrative data for the same cohort of leavers as time passes provides information on whether employment is becoming more stable, earnings are rising, and economic hardship is decreasing--in short, whether the well-being of leavers is improving over time.
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