#nerdpost2: the dynamics of welfare caseloads

Some simple mathematics of welfare caseloads.

My last post discussed some implications of length-biased sampling for penal reform. In a follow-on post, I consider some implications of the same mathematics in the 1996 welfare reform. The figure to the right shows the probability that AFDC recipients would leave on or before a given year. The top line represents the distribution among all new entrants to the program. The bottom line performs the same calculations for the standing population of welfare recipients at a particular point in time.

As you can see, the two populations are really quite different. About 21 percent of new entrants into the welfare system are predicted to remain on the program more than five years—for most people, the identified limit on the receipt of federally-financed TANF aid.  Within the standing population of current recipients, the comparable figure is 59 percent. The 20% requirement, perhaps reasonable for an entering cohort, is therefore quite punishing when applied to an existing population that inherently includes a much larger proportion of hard cases. If you haven’t seen Mary Jo Bane and David Ellwood’s work on welfare dynamics,  have a peek here.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

5 thoughts on “#nerdpost2: the dynamics of welfare caseloads”

  1. I think I more or less follow where you’re going with this. My question is, are you just trying to help people understand more of the hazards of statistics? Which is always useful. Or are you saying something about TANF?

    For example, if many/most people weren’t staying on welfare for 5 years anyway, pre-TANF, wasn’t the whole thing kind of window-dressing? What was the point?

    Because what I’d like to know is, what happened to people who got kicked off? Does anyone actually know what happened to those specific individuals? Not to rates of poverty overall, but those actual people.

    And then there is the whole question of whether the “poverty line” is set properly at all. But that’s probably not on the topic here.

    1. As far as I know, all the knowledge of what becomes of those who fall off the TANF rolls is anecdotal.

      In the late 1990s the New Mexico state government attempted to determine what happened to folks who left the TANF rolls. Unfortunately, the study was so methodologically flawed that the data derived are useless. (In fact, the study is so flawed I use it as an exam question periodically.)

  2. Also anecdotally, supposedly a fair number of people who exhausted their TANF eligibility were able then to qualify as disabled. Various commentators opined that that would have been the appropriate income stream for many of those folks from the beginning. Harold, what is your take on that?

    1. Some joined the disability rolls. Some indeed disappeared or had tragic outcomes. Many more actually found jobs, or turned their off-the-books job into a job in the official economy. This was the roaring 1990s, after all, when there were many jobs available. And President Clinton expanded supports for working poor such as EITC and (then) SCHIP, which really helped. The great success of welfare reform was to turn nonworking poor into working poor. Unfortunately, very little evidence of upward mobility or of people’s kids doing well.

      Until the recent recession, I would have said that welfare reform was far more successful than many of us had feared. My view has considerably darkened during the current recession, because TANF has failed to meet the needs of so many low-income single moms and kids.

      1. Well I am glad that someone actually followed up with at least some of the people. My impression at the time had been that Congress didn’t allocate money to do that, presumably because it wasn’t considered important.

        I’m still not sure what I think about welfare reform. In California, at least you could go to school while getting assistance, and I’m not sure that was true everywhere. There was a chance that if you worked hard, maybe you wouldn’t be poor your whole life. (Though that was true before TANF, I think, so it shouldn’t be credited to the reform.)

        This is getting depressing. It’s funny to me that Americans are so harsh towards single mothers.

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