Female-Headed Families on AFDC: Who Leaves Welfare Quickly and Who Doesn't

By Petersen, Carol Dawn | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Female-Headed Families on AFDC: Who Leaves Welfare Quickly and Who Doesn't


Petersen, Carol Dawn, Journal of Economic Issues


As national policymakers once again contemplate welfare reform, one of the measures being discussed would place limits on the amount of time that a family could receive benefits from Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), the nation's largest cash welfare program.(1) The debate over moving to a time-limited welfare system raises questions about who is likely to leave welfare quickly and who is likely to remain on AFDC for longer periods of time.

To answer these questions, data on single-parent, female-headed AFDC families were analyzed at the U.S. General Accounting Office to determine the demographic, economic, and other factors that affect the rate at which such families leave welfare. This paper (1) provides background information on the AFDC program and recent efforts to help welfare families leave AFDC, (2) examines bow various factors influence female-headed families' length of stay on welfare, and (3) assesses the implications of this for welfare reform.

AFDC and JOBS Welfare Recipients

Concerns about the recent growth in the AFDC population and the prospects of long-term dependency for many families have prompted renewed attention to the nation's welfare system. AFDC caseloads have risen dramatically since fall 1989 and are currently at record high levels. While the average AFDC family receives assistance for about two years, many families, including those who go on and off welfare numerous times, receive assistance for much longer periods of time. Currently, AFDC benefits reach about 5 million families with children; female-headed families represent more than 90 percent of these AFDC families. Total assistance payments for these families, including federal, state, and local funds, were about $22.2 billion in fiscal year 1992.

Since 1968, the federal government has encouraged and directed the states to help AFDC families obtain employment and become more self-sufficient. In recent years, the Family Support Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-485) has required all states to establish a Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program to help welfare families obtain the assistance they need to move toward self-sufficiency. Under JOBS, states must provide AFDC adults and teenagers (16 years of age and older) with the education, training, work experience, and other supportive services they need to increase their employability.

JOBS was intended to transform the nation's welfare system by refocusing the AFDC program away from merely providing cash benefits and toward a system that helps families avoid long-term dependence. To date, however, JOBS has only been able to provide services to a small proportion of AFDC recipients. Because states must commit their own funds to obtain federal matching JOBS funds, they are generally allowed to operate their programs subject to available resources and are not required to serve every eligible AFDC recipient. Recent data from the Department of health and Human Services (HHS) show that only about 11 percent of all adult AFDC recipients participated in JOBS in fiscal year 1992 [U.S. House of Representatives 1994, 357-91]. In addition to allowing states to decide who and how many will be served, JOBS accords states substantial discretion in deciding what services will be provided. Although there is a great deal of variation in the emphasis states place on different JOBS component categories, average figures for the United States as a whole show that the greatest proportion of JOBS participants have been enrolled in education programs of one type or another. Data from HHS show that almost 40 percent of those recipients who did participate in JOBS were in education programs during fiscal year 1992 [U.S. House of Representatives 1994, 351-21!.

Factors Affecting the Length AFDC Stays

To determine the factors that affect the length of time single-parent, female-headed AFDC families stay on welfare, a proportional hazards model was fit to data obtained from the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). …

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