Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. The Value of Leaver Studies

06/01/2002

Leaver studies can be valuable tools for monitoring the well-being of families who have been exposed to TANF and have left the rolls. Indeed, they can tell policy makers if families who have left welfare are facing problems that can be addressed by policy changes regardless of whether these problems arose as the result of past reforms. Furthermore, although leaver studies may provide only limited information about welfare reform in 1996, the ongoing capacity built by states and the research community will provide a baseline for evaluating future reforms.

Policy researchers and some policy makers also may wish to compare findings across leaver studies; after all, it is tempting to compare the status of leavers across states taking different approaches to welfare reform in order to assess the relative effectiveness of various policies. However, any such comparisons should be made with great caution for two main reasons. First, as we discuss in detail, leaver studies can have important methodological differences. These differences include the time period studied, the type of data used, the exact wording and ordering of survey questions, and even the definition of a leaver. Indeed, some leaver studies focus on families leaving welfare in the early to mid-1990s while other report findings from the late 1990s. Findings may differ or differences may be obscured simply because the studies analyze different historical periods. Similarly, some studies focus on the well-being of leavers shortly after they exit welfare while others examine their status several years later.

Second, differences between states, such as in economic opportunities or even the characteristics of welfare recipients themselves, may be even more important than policy differences in accounting for differences in the status of welfare leavers. It would not be surprising to find that leavers in areas where jobs are plentiful fare better than leavers in areas with slack economies regardless of the state's policy choices. Similarly, differences in the characteristics of state caseloads can affect the status of families leaving welfare. For example, if a state's welfare recipients are more disadvantaged than those in another state, then its leavers may be more likely to face difficulties after exiting. Finally, if a state pursues policies aimed at encouraging work among current welfare recipients rather than encouraging exits from welfare--for example, through generous earned-income disregards--then leaver studies could miss an important impact of reform: More families are mixing welfare and work. Such families would be ignored in leaver studies because they are still on welfare.

Nevertheless, as long as one keeps in mind these limitations in leaver studies, a well-done leaver study can help policy makers understand the process families go through as they leave welfare and the factors that help them make a successful and long-term transition. Furthermore, leaver studies can help identify challenges faced by leavers and the direction for subsequent policy interventions.

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