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

06/01/2002

An initial focus of concern of policy makers has been the effects of PRWORA on people who left AFDC and successor TANF programs  welfare leavers. In response to a congressional mandate, ASPE provided grant funds to states and counties to analyze administrative records and conduct surveys of two cohorts of welfare leavers. In fiscal year 1998, ASPE provided grant funds to 14 jurisdictions (10 states, the District of Columbia, and 3 counties or groups of counties) to study welfare leavers. In fiscal year 1999 it provided funds to one state to also follow welfare leavers, and to six jurisdictions (five states and one county group) to study those who were either formally or informally diverted from enrolling for TANF  divertees.

In its interim and final report (National Research Council, 1999, 2001), the panel commented on some problems with leaver studies. These problems include differences in welfare caseload trends across states, such as faster declines in welfare rolls in some states than others and earlier program changes in states that sought AFDC waiver provisions, both of which could affect the comparability of data for cohorts of welfare leavers defined at a point in time. Also, states do not define leavers in the same way; for example, some states count child-only cases as leavers and others do not. (In such cases, adult members of a family are not eligible for benefits but the children are.) The panel also emphasized the need for leaver studies to categorize sample cases by their previous welfare behavior, distinguishing between people who had been on welfare for a long period or only a short period or whether they had been cyclers (i.e., alternating periods of welfare receipt with periods of nonreceipt). To illustrate the problems in welfare leaver studies and best practice in such analyses, the panel commissioned three papers.

The first paper on this topic, Studies of Welfare Leavers: Data, Methods, and Contributions to the Policy Process by Acs and Loprest, reviews existing welfare leaver studies, including those funded by ASPE and others. It describes the definitions, methods, and procedures used in each study and identifies their strengths and weaknesses. The paper also compares some findings of leaver studies across studies that use different methodologies to illustrate points about comparability.

The second paper, Preexit Benefit Receipt and Employment Histories and Postexit Outcomes of Welfare Leavers by Ver Ploeg, uses data from the state of Wisconsin to analyze welfare leavers. The analysis breaks the sample members into long-termers, short-termers, and cyclers and shows that this categorization is important for understanding outcomes for these groups. The paper also stratifies the sample by work experience prior to leaving welfare and finds that there are sizable differences in employment outcomes across groups with more work experience compared to those with less work experience and that such categorizations also can be useful in understanding outcomes of leavers.

The last paper in this section and the final paper in the collection, Experience-Based Measures of Heterogeneity in the Welfare Caseload by Moffitt, uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to construct measures of heterogeneity in the welfare population based on the recipients own welfare experience. A number of classifications of women in the U.S. population are used to characterize the amount of time they have spent on welfare, the number of welfare spells they have experienced, and the average length of their welfare spells. The same long-termer, short-termer, and cycler distinctions are used in the paper as well. The analysis of the characteristics of these groups reveals that short-termers have the strongest labor market capabilities but, surprisingly, that cyclers and long-termers are approximately the same in terms of labor market potential. More generally, the only significant indicator of labor market capability is the total amount of time a recipient has been on welfare, not the degree of turnover or lengths of spells she experiences. The analysis suggests that welfare cycling is not a very useful indicator of a recipients labor market capability and that the nature of welfare cyclers and reasons that cycling occur are not well understood.

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