April 25, 2002


Frequently Cited Statistic Is Incomplete and Misleading
by Sharon Parrott

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Even as they tout the success states have had in helping families move from welfare to work, the Administration and some Congressional leaders are claiming that states have failed to engage a sufficient number of families in welfare-to-work programs. In support of this claim, some have cited federal data that appears to show that 58 percent of adult TANF cash assistance recipients are not engaged in work activities. For example, Representative Wally Herger — the lead sponsor of the TANF reauthorization bill now being considered in the House — recently wrote in an article entitled "Welfare reform is working" in The Washington Times, "Despite reforms emphasizing work, nearly 58 percent of adult welfare recipients today are not working . . . ."(1)

This figure is misleading when used as a measure of the success states have had in engaging families in welfare-to-work programs for two reasons:

Despite the limitations of this statistic, it has been used as a justification for increasing substantially the number of recipients states must place in welfare-to-work programs and for narrowing significantly the types of activities a recipient could participate in and still count toward the federal TANF participation rate.

A Substantially Higher Number of Recipients Are Participating in Activities

States currently are required to report to the federal government the number of adults who are engaged in a limited set of federally-defined work activities that "count" toward the federal participation rates. They are not required to report on the number of adults participating in other state-defined welfare-to-work activities that on not on the federal list, even if the state has determined that these activities are necessary for helping a parent move from welfare to work. Such activities may include job search and job readiness programs that last more than six weeks(2), mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation services, domestic violence-related services, literacy programs, or other activities designed to address barriers that impede a parent's ability to find and retain a job. Thus, while the federal data report that 42 percent of adult TANF recipients are participating in welfare-to-work programs, the actual figure is substantially higher.

The recent results from a survey of states conducted by the National Governor's Association (NGA) and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) demonstrate that a significantly higher proportion of adult TANF recipients are participating in employment-related activities each month.(3) Some 37 states responded to a question about the proportion of adult TANF recipients currently engaged in employment-related activities. These states reported than an average of 61 percent of adult TANF recipients were engaged in work-related activities each month. This state-reported figure that includes participation in all activities is 45 percent higher than the federal data on the proportion of recipients participating in work activities.


Some Recipients Are Not Engaged In Work Activities for Legitimate Reasons

There is often a presumption that all or nearly all recipients should be engaged in work-related activities each month. There are legitimate reasons, however, that some recipients are not engaged in such activities in a particular month.


Data Limitations Hinder Fuller Analysis of Participation

Unfortunately, available federal data do not allow for a fuller analysis of the proportion of TANF recipients that are engaged in employment-related activities in any particular month or the number who are not expected or are unable to participate in such activities due to their circumstances. Available federal data also do not allow analysts to examine the extent to which recipients are engaged in activities over a period of time. This is unfortunate because a more accurate measure of a state's commitment to engaging recipients in activities that can help them find jobs would capture the extent to which states ensure that recipients able to work do not receive cash assistance for a significant period of time without participating in a welfare-to-work program. Such a measure might, for example, measure the extent to which recipients participate in employment-related activities over a three- or six-month period. Such a figure would be substantially higher than both the 42 percent figure stemming from federal data reports and the 61 percent figure reported in the NGA/APHSA survey.



As Congress considers whether and how to change the TANF work requirements, it is important to recognize that over the past five years, states have implemented work-focused programs in which recipients are required to participate in welfare-to-work programs. As evaluations of state welfare-to-work programs have shown, these programs have helped many parents find jobs. While there is substantial interest in improving the effectiveness of these programs and in ensuring that all recipients who are able to work are engaged in activities that will help them find jobs, the available evidence does not suggest that states have designed programs in which large numbers of parents can receive cash assistance benefits for a significant period of time without being required to participate in work-related activities.

End Notes:

1. Wally Herger, "Welfare reform is working," The Washington Times, April 10, 2002.

2. Under current law, participation in job search and job readiness programs that exceeds six weeks (or four consecutive weeks) cannot count toward the federal work participation rate requirements states must meet. Many programs that teach workplace behavior, resume writing, job seeking skills, time management, and interview skills last longer than four consecutive weeks or six weeks total.

3. National Governors' Association and American Public Human Services Association, Welfare Reform Reauthorization: State Impact of Proposed Changes in Work Requirements, April 2002 Survey Results.

4. Gayle Hamilton and Susan Scrivener, Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, Promoting Participation: How to Increase Involvement in Welfare-to-Work Activities, September 1999.