Is permanent dependency the rule among welfare recipients? Those who answer no point out that roughly half of all women on welfare are off the rolls within two years. But research conducted by economist LaDonna Ann Pavetti, now with the Urban Institute, paints a more complicated picture. Pavetti examined 11 years of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and extensively interviewed single mothers, both current and former welfare recipients. She found that welfare recipients commonly follow a pattern she calls "cycling"—moving on and off the welfare rolls repeatedly.
Pavetti's data show that getting off welfare is easier than staying off. Almost 40 percent of women who leave welfare for work return to the rolls within one year; almost 70 percent are back on welfare within five years. Women who escape welfare for reasons other than work-marriage or help from relatives, for instance-have similarly high rates of return.
What drives women back to welfare? The most common answer Pavetti's subjects gave was simple economics. Not that AFDC is particularly generous, but the cornucopia of other benefits—food stamps, rent subsidies, and health insurance—makes life on welfare more attractive than off. All of which argues for restraining the growth in benefits and for gradually, rather than abruptly, reducing benefits when a welfare recipient finds a job.