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Time Limiting Welfare: Lessons from the States

Judith M. Gueron, MDRC, February 6, 1998

Time limiting welfare is a dramatic departure from past policy, raising many questions:

1. What forms do time limits take?
2. What are the key operational challenges?
3. What happens when people hit the time limit "cliff"?
4.What are the effects on the behavior and well-being of families and children?
5. Who wins and who loses?

Early information from waiver states provides some answers.

1. What forms do time limits take?

  • "time limit" has more than one meaning: ending all support, providing work, reducing support, providing vouchers
  • the time limit clock runs at different speeds, sometimes stopping for people who are working
  • states are combining time limits with other policies: expanded welfare-to-work programs, enriched financial incentives, more intensive case management
  • states are using different approaches to handling extensions and exemptions

2. What are the key operational challenges?

  • communicating the message: balancing firmness (creating a sense of urgency) and flexibility (responding to the diversity in the caseload)
  • managing time: 5 years is a long time; some states encourage people to "bank" their time for future emergencies, others to invest in education or training with the goal of getting longer-lasting jobs
  • operating large-scale, high-performance welfare-to-work programs: time limits raise the stakes on getting people jobs, resulting in an expansion of work programs
  • tracking the time limit: states are challenged to follow people across welfare cases and locations; if you can’t measure it, it won’t be real

3. What happens when people hit the time limit "cliff"?

  • do states strictly enforce the time limit or "blink"? Early information from the first waiver location (Escambia, Florida) shows nearly all people have their full grant canceled
  • what share of the caseload is deferred or excused? Too early to know

4. What are the effects on the behavior and well-being of families and children?

  • welfare dynamics: applications and departures from the rolls
  • employment: getting and keeping jobs, before or after the time limit
  • number cut off welfare without work
  • "dependency," income, and poverty
  • short- and long-term effects on child-bearing, family formation, and children?

Research findings are limited because few people have so far hit the time limits.

Preliminary results from the Escambia, Florida, program that combined time limits with mandatory welfare-to-work program services and financial incentives provide some answers.

In the period before people hit the time limit, the program:

  • increased employment and earnings and raised income
  • did not affect welfare costs or rolls (i.e., people did not "bank" their months of eligibility for welfare)

5. Who wins and who loses?

In welfare reform, the story is always in the subgroups. Little is known about how time limits are affecting long-termers, people with health problems, teen parents, or people in large central cities, very rural communities, or areas with high unemployment

Fortunately, the on-going studies in states that launched evaluations under pre-1996 waivers will provide early answers. Further findings will come from the major studies of devolution just getting underway.

6. Policy implications

  • simply imposing a time limit is not enough
  • communication is key
  • translating the message into action is critical
  • how best to respond to time limits is not always clear
  • staff need training and support in their new roles

February 1998


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