Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Studies of Welfare Leavers: Data, Methods, and Contributions to the Policy Process

06/01/2002

In August 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), making sweeping changes in the system of cash assistance for poor families and creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Four years after the passage of PRWORA, policy makers, practitioners, and the public continue to ask the ill-defined question, "Did welfare reform work?" Although cash assistance caseloads have dropped dramatically, from 4.4 million in August 1996 to 2.4 million in December, 1999, declining caseloads are not the sole criterion for a successful reform. Indeed, there is concern about the well-being of families who have left welfare: Are families leaving cash assistance postreform worse off than leavers prereform? Are they worse off than they were while receiving aid? To this end, many states and policy researchers, some with federal funding, have conducted and continue to conduct studies of families who have left the welfare rolls, often referred to as "leaver studies."

Given the proliferation of these studies, this paper attempts to provide guidance for authors and consumers of leaver studies on how to best use and create these studies. Our goals are threefold:

  • To review the methods used in leaver studies;
  • To identify preferred practices for those planning to conduct a leaver study; and
  • To provide guidance to readers in assessing study results and making comparisons across studies.

To this end, we have examined 49 studies of welfare leavers, including 13 studies funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE).(1) They are listed in Table 12-1. Although we have made every attempt to review the body of work on families leaving welfare, these studies are by no means an exhaustive list of research in this area. Although most are explicitly studies of welfare leavers, some are studies of specific state welfare programs and reforms. We include these latter studies because they provide significant amounts of information on welfare leavers. Several of the studies present ongoing work; their findings are preliminary.

This paper is organized into three sections. First, we discuss the value of leaver studies as well as their limitations. Next we discuss what leaver studies should measure, which addresses the question of how to measure economic well-being and how some studies have done so. Finally, we examine methods for conducting a leaver study. This section describes important issues around defining leavers, positives and limitations of administrative and survey data, and how to assess the quality of data used. We hope that information in all these sections will be valuable to both future authors of leaver studies and those who are using them to understand how former welfare recipients are faring.

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