States' tracking studies can serve several purposes. First, tracking studies can provide needed information about how welfare reform is working. The scope of welfare reform has focused the interest of policymakers, the public, and the media on what happens to families after they leave welfare. Tracking studies can provide vital and timely feedback to policymakers, advocates for the poor, and concerned citizens. Early attention will focus on the number of recipients who have moved successfully into work and the number who are suffering hardships, such as homelessness and abuse. As studies continue to track outcomes for families and employ more complex approaches, assessments can also focus on job retention, advancement, and families' ability to move out of poverty.
Second, the feedback provided by followup studies can inform states' ongoing policymaking efforts. It helps states determine whether they should maintain programs or whether they should improve or replace them. States can identify critical outcomes to use in assessing their programs, such as how many former welfare recipients are working, how much they are earning, and whether they can keep jobs and advance into higher paying ones. When outcomes fall short of expectations, new efforts can be focused on improving performance. The experiences of other states can provide standards to judge the success of reforms and offer examples of alternative programs that states can use to improve their programs. States can also use questions in the studies to address issues directly, such as whether access to child care or transportation remains a barrier for many families or whether job training programs have adequately prepared recipients for work.
Finally, welfare officials are concerned about how losing welfare payments affects the well-being of poor families and children. Followup studies enable officials to identify families at risk of deprivation and hardship. Services or temporary assistance can be provided to these families to ease these hardships and, in extreme cases, children can be removed from harmful situations.
Although followup studies provide critical information on outcomes and what is working and what is not working, they do not provide rigorous scientific evaluation of a program's impact. However, given the rapid pace of reforms and the constant efforts to adapt and improve those policies, it is likely that outcome studies will provide the most timely information for most states to use in assessing their programs during the next few years. These studies help provide a more comprehensive and accurate picture of how programs are working than do the assessments based on more readily available data, such as a change in caseload size or the number of recipients working while still receiving benefits.