States have taken three basic approaches to tracking recipients who leave welfare — surveys, cross-matching with administrative data, and home visits. A number of states are combining these approaches.
Surveys rely on the responses of former recipients for information about the effects of reforms. They can be conducted in a variety of ways—by mail, over the telephone, and/or through personal interviews. Former recipients can be asked about their work behavior; problems they may still face; and the existence of hardships, such as an inability to pay rent or the lack of money for food. Surveys can include both closed- and open-ended questions, enabling the welfare agency to obtain detailed information, including opinions and other nonquantitative data.
However, surveys can be time-consuming and expensive. Researchers may have to use several different methods to contact an individual, and the interview could take up to an hour or more. Surveys also require trained staff to design and administer the effort.
Using a survey to track recipients who leave welfare involves trade-offs¾ to ensure that the cost is not prohibitive, the questions address what policymakers need to know, and the response rate is high enough to produce confidence in the findings.
Cross-matching with administrative data gives welfare agencies external data about families that have left welfare. Unemployment insurance databases and the new hire registries used for child support enforcement enable welfare agencies to check whether former recipients are working, how much they are earning, what types of jobs they are getting, and whether they are advancing into higher paying jobs. Social service agency records indicate which families are continuing to use other social services, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and child care assistance. Child abuse registries can identify families in which abuse and neglect are occurring. Welfare agencies' own records can indicate which families are returning to welfare. Using administrative data is often more cost-effective than conducting surveys or home visits, and these data provide a more accurate source for the information included in the followup databases. Yet, for many important and more detailed questions, administrative data do not exist.
Home visits involve going to recipients' homes to check on the well-being of the families that have lost benefits. Home visits are more of a service delivery strategy than a data collection approach, but they are an effective means of identifying families experiencing difficulty in caring for their children because of the loss of benefits.
Policymakers seek a range of information about families that leave welfare and their particular questions determine the best strategies for followup studies. Some approaches address particular questions better than others do, but no one method is best for all questions. Questions about earnings and work can be efficiently answered by data matching with states' unemployment insurance and new- hire reporting systems. These data are more reliable than survey answers about employment, at least about employment in covered occupations. Collecting information about job retention and wages over time also requires a survey or data match months and years after the family has left welfare. Surveys are probably the only effective method for determining the number of families that face trouble in purchasing food or shelter or for finding out how many recipients moved in with families, husbands, or boyfriends and whether doing so made it possible for the family to support itself without welfare. And home visits are the most reliable way to find families in which children are at risk of abuse and neglect.
Regardless of how a state decides to track its recipients, a related question is who will carry out the study. Some state agencies have undertaken the work themselves or have used other state agencies. For example, Iowa uses public health visitors to look in on families a few months after they have been sanctioned. Other states have relied on researchers in their state university systems. These researchers often have the general skills required for conducting such studies, and they can learn the specific challenges of surveying low-income families or cross-matching with administrative data. Finally, some states have hired outside consultants to carry out their evaluations. These consultants can contribute valuable experience and knowledge about the key research questions in evaluating welfare reforms. However, using consultants is usually the most expensive option.