Life on Welfare: Who Is Getting Cash Assistance Now?

By Born, Catherine E.; Caudill, Pamela J. et al. | Policy & Practice of Public Human Services, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Life on Welfare: Who Is Getting Cash Assistance Now?


Born, Catherine E., Caudill, Pamela J., Cordero, Melinda L., Policy & Practice of Public Human Services


The second anniversary of the enactment of welfare reform legislation recently passed with little fanfare. This landmark occasion may have gone generally unnoticed because most observers are now keenly focused on the growing number of research reports that describe reform's first years in various states and localities. Elected and appointed officials, especially at the state level, have been eagerly awaiting empirical data about the effects of reform on families. In some states (e.g., Maryland), research data are being given considerable weight as legislators and others assess the progress and problems of reform programs to date and the nature of any mid-course modifications that might be necessary.

For understandable reasons, particularly those related to the potential impact on child welfare, research so far has focused largely on those who have left or are leaving cash assistance under the new welfare system; increasingly, the research community appears to be adopting the phrase welfare-leavers to describe this group. Though disagreement persists about the degree to which the economy or states' reforms are causal, results reported from the larger-scale welfare-leavers' studies have generally been positive.(1) This is all certainly good news. Given the dramatic decreases in welfare caseloads across the country, however, many states, if they have not already, will soon begin to experience a slowdown in the rate and number of cases that exit cash assistance. Some states or counties may already have reached the point where a sizable number of families still on the welfare rolls are those for whom making a successful transition from welfare to work will be quite difficult.

Now that the first large wave of families has left welfare, who are the families currently receiving cash assistance? What are their characteristics and what obstacles or challenges do they and local welfare agencies face in the new, time-limited, work-focused world of public welfare? Thus far, published research studies provide little information about today's on-welfare group. The literature is also silent on the breakdown among current on-welfare families - between those who are "welfare stayers" (families who have not been able to exit since the start of welfare reform) and those who are "welfare newcomers" (recent postreform entrants or reentrants to cash assistance). Yet data on case characteristics and caseload composition are both critical to the field's ability to correctly identify and effectively address the difficult challenges that confront us in the midyears of welfare reform. This article attempts to shed a glimmer of light on these issues by presenting findings from a study conducted in one Maryland county (Frederick) of the entire on-welfare caseload (n = 358) 18 months after implementing (nonwaiver-based) welfare reform in Maryland. The study uses both qualitative and quantitative data to address the two key questions noted above.

Study Site

Frederick, the state's largest subdivision in terms of land area, is one of 23 counties in Maryland; Baltimore City is a separate, incorporated city that does not lie within a county. It is located within 50 miles of two major cities (Baltimore and Washington, D.C.); it borders the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Howard, Carroll, and Washington and the states of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Since the 1950s, the county has experienced sizable population growth, much of it in-migration from other parts of the state. Its rates of nonmarital (20.6 percent) and teenage births (2.5 percent) are lower than the statewide average, the county's poverty rate (5.7 percent) is about half that of the state average, and its 3.4 percent unemployment rate is third lowest in Maryland. At the same time, Frederick County remains far less urbanized than many other Maryland jurisdictions; about 40 percent of its residents are rural dwellers, compared to 20 percent for the state as a whole. …

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