NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

What Mean Impacts Miss: Distributional Effects of Welfare Reform Experiments

Marianne Bitler, Jonah Gelbach, Hilary Hoynes

NBER Working Paper No. 10121
Issued in November 2003
NBER Program(s):   LS   PE

Labor supply theory predicts systematic heterogeneity in the impact of recent welfare reforms on earnings, transfers, and income. Yet most welfare reform research focuses on mean impacts. We investigate the importance of heterogeneity using random-assignment data from Connecticut's Jobs First waiver features key elements of post-1996 welfare programs. Estimated quantile treatment effects exhibit the substantial heterogeneity predicted by labor supply theory. Thus mean impacts miss a great deal. Looking separately at dropouts and other women does not improve the performance of mean impacts. Evaluating Jobs First relative to AFDC using a class of social welfare functions, we find that Jobs First's performance depends on the degree of inequality aversion, the relative valuation of earnings and transfers, and whether one accounts for Jobs First's greater costs. We conclude that welfare reform's effects are likely both more varied and more extensive than has been recognized.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w10121

Published: Bitler, Marianne P., Jonah B. Gelbach and Hilary W. Hoynes. "What Mean Impacts Miss: Distributional Effects Of Welfare Reform Experiments," American Economic Review, 2006, v96(4,Sep), 988-1012.

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