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. (10)
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. (2) 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 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 who 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 follow-up 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 use methodologies and approaches that will yield valid findings. (7)
States' tracking studies can serve several purposes. First, tracking studies can provide needed information about how welfare reform is working. The scope of welfare reform has focused the interest of policymakers, the public, and the media on what happens to families after they leave welfare. Tracking studies can provide vital and timely feedback to policymakers, advocates for the poor, and concerned citizens. ?arly attention will focus on the number of recipients who have moved successfully into work and the number who are suffering hardships, such as homelessness and abuse. As studies continue to track outcomes for families and employ more complex approaches, assessments can also focus on job retention, advancement, and families' ability to move out of poverty.
Second, the feedback provided by follow-up studies can inform states' ongoing policymaking efforts. It helps states determine whether they should maintain programs or whether they should improve or replace them. States can identify critical outcomes to use in assessing their programs, such as how many former welfare recipients are working, how much they are earning, and whether they can keep jobs and advance into higher paying ones. When outcomes fall short of expectations, new efforts can be focused on improving performance. (4) The experiences of other states can provide standards to judge the success of reforms and offer examples of alternative programs that states can use to improve their programs. States can also use questions in the studies to address issues directly, such as whether access to child care or transportation remains a barrier for many families or whether job training programs have adequately prepared recipients for work....