Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Defining Welfare Leavers

06/01/2002

The first issue all leaver studies must address is, "Who is a leaver?" A leaver clearly is someone who was receiving welfare and then stopped receiving welfare, but precisely how to define this term can vary.

It is not uncommon for a welfare case to be closed for administrative reasons--for example, the adult in the unit failed to appear for a recertification meeting. Sometimes cases closed for this reason reopen within a matter of weeks. These "leavers" were neither trying to exit welfare nor were they "forced off" by a formal sanction. To avoid including these "administrative closures," studies can require that a case remains closed for a certain period of time before the case is considered to be a leaver. Many studies follow a definition that requires closure for 2 months before inclusion in the sample of leavers. Others require only 1 month. One might expect that studies using a 1-month definition would have higher returns to welfare and lower employment than those using 2-month definitions, all else equal. Interestingly, we find no clear pattern across the two definitions, (as shown in Table 12-2). This could be because all else is not equal, and there are many other differences across these studies that could affect outcomes. Only Arizona-1 actually provides outcome numbers for both definitions in the same data. Although this is only one study, it does show that first-quarter returns to welfare are higher using the 1-month definition of leaver. Employment is approximately the same.

 

TABLE 12-2
Leaver Population Studied
State Definition of Leaver(a) All Leavers(b) Continuous Leavers(c) Sanctioned Leavers Child Only Cases Excluded
Arizona-1 1 month x   x x
Arizona-2 2 months x     x
California-Los Angeles Co. 2 months x      
California-San Mateo Co. 2 months x      
District of Columbia 1 month x      
Florida   x      
Georgia-1 2 months x      
Georgia-2 2 months x      
Idaho-1   x      
Idaho-2   x      
Illinois-1 2 months x     x
Iliinois-2 2 months x     x
Indiana   x      
Iowa       x  
Kentucky   x      
Maryland-1   x x x  
Maryland-2   x x x  
Maryland-3   x x x  
Massachusetts   x      
Michigan Sanctioned for 1 year     x  
Mississippi   x      
Missouri-1 2 months x      
Missouri-2 2 months x     x
Montana   x      
New Jersey       x  
New Mexico   x      
New York-1   x      
New York-2 2 months x     x
North Carolina-1 1 month x      
North Carolina-2   x      
Ohio-Cuyahoga Co. 1 2 months x x   x
Ohio-Cuyahoga Co. 2 2 months x x   x
Oklahoma   x x x  
Pennsylvania   x      
South Carolina-I     x    
South Carolina-2     x    
South Carolina-3     x    
Tennessee   x   x  
Texas 6 months x      
Virginia   x      
Washington-1   x      
Washington-2     x    
Washington-3 1 month   x    
Washington-4 2 months x x    
Washington-5 2 months       x
Wisconsin-1 2 months x x    
Wisconsin-2   x      
Wisconsin-3 6 to 9 months   x   x
Wyoming   x      
NOTE: The notation x means that the study included a special focus on continuous or sanctioned leavers.
a If a cell in the leaver definition column is blank, then the study did not specifically define the term.
b If "all leavers" is marked, the study includes continuous leavers and sanctioned leavers. If the two subsequent categories are not marked, then the study does not include a special focus of either continuous or sanctioned leavers.
c Continuous leavers refers to individuals who did not return to cash assistance.

In addition to defining the number of months a case is closed before being included as a leaver, studies must also define the period of time over which to "collect" the leaver sample. Studies usually include all who meet the leaver definition for a specific month, a quarter, or a longer period. Table 12-3 shows the specific calendar time period over which studies define their leaver sample, with results ranging up to a year. How the length of the time period chosen affects results depends on the extent to which the environment is changing. In an area where the context is rapidly changing, combining a group of leavers who left over a long time period can make results less easy to interpret. Many of the studies have chosen to define their leaver study cohort over a 3-month period.

The specific calendar time period chosen for defining the leaver sample also will likely affect results. Some of the studies examined here are based on cohorts from 1996 and others are based on cohorts from 1999. In addition to other differences across areas that make comparisons difficult, readers should keep in mind the specific time period the study is addressing.

Although most studies are interested in how all families that left welfare are faring, some studies also include information on families that remain off welfare for an extended period of time. We refer to such leavers as continuous leavers. For some studies, this is a subset of all leavers defined using a 1- or 2-month closure period. A few studies focus solely on leavers who remain off welfare for a more extended period of time, defining leaver as a case being closed from 6 months to a year.

 

TABLE 12-3
Time Period Covered by Leaver Studies
State/Study Exit Cohort Follow-up Period
Arizona-1 1Q98 Administrative: 1 year;
Survey: 12-18 months
Arizona-2 4Q96 1 year
California-Los Angeles Co. 3Q96 1 year
California-San Mateo Co. 1997 1 year
District of Columbia 4Q97, 4Q98 Administrative data: 18 months;
Survey: 1 year
Florida * 3 years
Georgia-1 1997 1 year
Georgia-2 1Q97 1 year
Idaho- I 3rd and 4th Q97 6 months
Idaho-2 3rd and 4th Q97 10 months
Illinois-1 December1997 or June 1998 4-11 months
Illinois-2 Adminstrative: 3Q97-4Q98:
Survey: Dec 1998
Administrative: One year;
Survey: 6-8 months
Indiana * n.a.
Iowa * n.a.
Kentucky January- November 1997 1-11 months
Maryland-1 October 1996-September 1997 One year
Maryland-2 October 1996-September 1997 Two years
Maryland-3 October 1996-March 1998 18 months
Massachusetts 1st and 2nd Q97 3 months**
Michigan April 1996 12 months
Mississippi 1Q98 6 months
Missouri-I 4Q96 2 years
Missouri-2 4Q98 30 months
Montana March 1996-September 1997 1-18 months
New Jersey February-October 1998 n.a.
New Mexico July 1996- June 1997 n.a.
New York- I November 1997 6 months
New York-2 1Q97 One year
North Carolina-i September 1996 30 months
North Carolina-2 July 1998 5 months
Ohio-Cuyahoga Co. 1 1996 One year
Ohio-Cuyahoga Co. 2 3Q96 One year
Oklahoma October 1996-November 1997 2-20 months
Pennsylvania March 1997-January 1998 1-11 months
South Carolina- I n.a. n.a.
South Carolina-2 2Q97 One year
South Carolina-3 3Q97 One year
Tennessee n.a. n.a.
Texas November 1997 6 months
Virginia n.a. n.a.
Washington-1 n.a. n.a.
Washington-2 December 1997-March 1998 12-18 months
Washington-3 * n.a.
Washington-4 4Q97 Two years
Washington-5 October 1998 6 months
Wisconsin-1 July 1995-1996 15 months
Wisconsin-2 n.a. n.a.
Wisconsin-3 1Q98 6-9 months
Wyoming n.a. n.a.
*These studies took a random sample of people who began receiving benefits when Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was implemented in the state. At the time of the survey, these recipients may or may not have been receiving TANF benefits. These are caseload tracking studies, not leaver studies.
**This study surveyed respondents every 3 months for a year. The study includes the results of the interviews at months 3 and 12.

Information on continuous leavers is valuable because those who return to welfare most likely have lower rates of employment, and higher participation in other programs such as the Food Stamps Program and Medicaid. For example, if we examine all leavers, we might find that the share receiving food stamps remains constant over time. But this approach might mask two countervailing trends: As time goes by, one group of leavers returns to welfare, thereby increasing food stamp participation, while another group of leavers, continuous leavers, has declining food stamp participation. Consequently, examining continuous leavers can be extremely useful. Note, however, that presenting results solely for continuous leavers (without information on returns to welfare) biases results toward positive outcomes when a significant portion of the caseload returns. Indeed, results from the studies using administrative data reveal that returns to welfare 1 year after exit range from 13 percent to 40 percent. Thus, presentation of results for all leavers and continuous leavers is preferred.

Another important subgroup to consider is families that were terminated from welfare by a sanction. Nine of the studies reviewed examine sanctioned cases (see Table 12-2). Because sanctioned leavers may behave differently or have different characteristics than nonsanctioned leavers, separation of these results can be important, especially in areas where a significant portion of a given leaver group left due to sanctions. Results for all leavers in such an area could potentially mask negative results for the subset of sanctioned leavers.

Most studies are interested in how the adults in a welfare case fare after they leave welfare; however, a growing portion of welfare cases are "child only" cases. Ten of the studies we review explicitly exclude "child only" cases from their leaver studies. Because many of the outcomes examined in leaver studies involve parental employment, we suspect that most leaver studies, in fact, exclude such cases. Furthermore, when an adult leaves a welfare assistance unit but her children become a "child only" case, some studies consider that adult to be a welfare leaver while others consider the case to remain open. Finally, some studies focus exclusively on single parent cases while others combine information on one- and two-parent families. Providing information for all leavers as well as separately for one- and two-parent cases is preferred especially in locations with a high proportion of two-parent cases.

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