Across the nation, states have embarked on reforms aimed at moving welfare recipients into jobs and on the way to being able to support their families without cash assistance. State actions, along with the federal reforms enacted in 1996, constitute the greatest change in assistance to poor families since the federal Aid to Dependent Children program was enacted during the New Deal. These reforms, coupled with a strong economy, provide a historic opportunity to transform welfare from a cash assistance program to one that focuses on work and self-sufficiency.
Along with the strong economy, these reform efforts have contributed to a stunning drop in welfare caseloads in most states. Nationwide, caseloads have declined 30 percent between January 1994 and September 1997. Fifteen states have seen more than a 40 percent reduction in their caseloads. The large number of families leaving welfare has generated intense interest in what has happened to them. States' goals do not stop at getting families off of the welfare rolls. They are also concerned that recipients find jobs and become able to support their families. States' interest in what is happening to families that leave welfare has resulted in most states undertaking or planning to undertake studies to track former recipients to determine how many are working, what kinds of jobs they are getting, and whether they are able to adequately support their children.
These followup studies will provide critical early feedback to state policymakers and program administrators on whether the reforms adopted by a state are working, and whether modifications need to be made in the programs to ensure that families move successfully from welfare to work. Additionally, these studies are of interest to Congress, the administration, advocacy organizations, the media, researchers, and others who are observing state welfare reform initiatives with a critical eye. Given this interest, it is important that states design studies that provide timely answers to the questions being asked, represent a cost-effective use of funds, and utilize methodologies and approaches that will yield valid findings. This Issue Brief was written to help states with this endeavor. It provides an analysis of the three basic approaches to tracking recipients who leave welfare - surveys, cross-matching with administrative data, and home visits - including the type of information that can be collected through each approach and the positive aspects as well as limitations of each method. It also examines important technical issues to consider, such as the universe of cases to study, sample size, questionnaire design, confidentiality issues, and data accuracy issues.