Qualitative data increasingly have been used in welfare program evaluations and studies. Although there is a fairly long history of the use of process analysis in formal evaluations, there is less history in using direct observation of study respondents or even using focus groups. Yet in attempting to learn how current or former welfare recipients are faring, qualitative data can provide information that neither survey nor administrative data offer.

The paper by Newman discusses the use of qualitative data for investigating welfare and low-income populations. Newman notes that qualitative data can assist in helping to understand the subjective points of view of families in these populations, provide information on how recipients understand the rules of the welfare system, uncover unexpected factors that are driving families’ situations, explore any unintended consequences of a policy change, and focus attention on the dynamic and constantly changing character of most families in the low-income population. The author reviews a range of methods, from open-ended questions in survey questionnaires to focus groups to detailed participant observation in the field, in each case listing the advantages and disadvantages of the method. Newman then discusses the use of qualitative data in several recent welfare reform projects to illustrate how the methods can be used. The author concludes with a recommendation that additional expertise in qualitative data be brought into state governments and that the use of these methods increase.


An initial focus of concern of policy makers has been the effects of PRWORA on people who left AFDC and successor TANF programs—“welfare leavers.” In response to a congressional mandate, ASPE provided grant funds to states and counties to analyze administrative records and conduct surveys of two cohorts of welfare leavers. In fiscal year 1998, ASPE provided grant funds to 14 jurisdictions (10 states, the District of Columbia, and 3 counties or groups of counties) to study welfare leavers. In fiscal year 1999 it provided funds to one state to also follow welfare leavers, and to six jurisdictions (five states and one county group) to study those who were either formally or informally diverted from enrolling for TANF—“divertees.”

In its interim and final report (National Research Council, 1999, 2001), the panel commented on some problems with leaver studies. These problems include differences in welfare caseload trends across states, such as faster declines in welfare rolls in some states than others and earlier program changes in states that sought AFDC waiver provisions, both of which could affect the comparability of data for cohorts of welfare leavers defined at a point in time. Also, states do not define leavers in the same way; for example, some states count “child-only cases”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement