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Danielle Hollar of Harvard Family Research Project writes about the possibility of using an approach that provides a more comprehensive picture of the quality of people’s lives to examine the impact of welfare reform on individuals.

“What we don’t know is precisely what is happening to all of these former welfare recipients.”¹

This sentiment of concern, expressed by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, echoes throughout public policy research and practitioner circles, federal and state legislatures, state and local welfare reform institutions, Internet listserves, community-based service organizations, and in general, throughout the polity at large. And while research on “welfare leavers” is emerging,² much of this research tends to focus on traditional measures, on numbers geared toward answering questions such as how many people are leaving the rolls, how many people have or do not have jobs, what wages people leaving welfare are earning, and so forth. Thus, we are beginning to collect counts, but we do not have the story. We do not know many details about former welfare recipients, what they are doing, how they are faring. Are they working? Are they moving into jobs and self-sufficiency? And more importantly, what are their lives really like after leaving public assistance? Of particular interest is a holistic conception of their “quality of life after welfare reform.”

From a public interest perspective, evaluators of social programs, public administrators, and policymakers are charged with understanding the magnitude and direction of the impact of welfare reform on beneficiaries of our public assistance institutions. But how do we go about assessing the impact of policy in ways that really describe what is happening to people as new policies are implemented? Assessing the human impact of policy changes requires more than the evaluation of economic outcomes. Judging the true issues of well-being requires that we know about the resources of beneficiaries and their conditions of life from various perspectives. Characteristics of people’s lives that create the whole person—aspects such as health, knowledge and skills, social relations, conditions of work, and so forth³—need to be examined in relationship with each other in order to determine true policy impact.

One possible framework from which to craft evaluation activities that address these issues is quality of life. A quality of life framework takes into consideration all of the aspects of life that collectively affect well-being, including components such as those found in Box 3.

Box 3: Domains and Examples of Measures of Quality of Life*

Components Measures
Health and Access to Health Care • Contact with health professionals
• Symptoms of illness
• Availability/use of health insurance
Employment and Working Conditions • Opportunity to leave during work hours
• Type of occupation
Economic Resources • Income/earnings
• Expenses (child care, transportation, health)
Education • Level of education reached
• School attendance/performance
Housing • Number of persons per room
• Type of housing/amenities
Security of Life and Property • Exposure to violence and theft
• Safe/functional housing
Diet and Nutrition • Quantity of food available
• Resources for food acquisition

* This framework is based primarily on the work of economists and philosophers found in Nussbaum, M. C., & Sen, A. (Eds.). The quality of life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Evaluators may use these components of a quality of life framework to guide the selection of methodologies generally, and/or more specifically, in the construction of indicators and measures for assessing impact. In selecting methodologies for collecting and analyzing data, evaluators should seek methods that allow the collection and analysis of data in each of the component areas of quality of life, as well as across these domains. Most often, doing so requires the use of multiple methods, but by choosing data collection and analysis methods based on this framework, all aspects of well-being will be considered. A quality of life framework also assists in the development of data gathering plans and instruments specifically. Following this framework ensures that questions are asked that address holistic conceptions of life, or that preexisting administrative data are identified and used that address the components of the framework, and thus the critical aspects of the lives of those affected by policy change. However, evaluators need to be cognizant of the fact that most administrative datasets do not include information on all aspects of quality of life mentioned above, and thus other means of data collection will have to be used to fully understand the stories of those leaving welfare.

In conclusion, I hope that this brief discussion of a quality of life framework for guiding evaluation activities has ignited your interest in pursuing holistic perspectives for the evaluation of social policies and programs. Crafting evaluation activities around indicators and measures of quality of life will provide greater, qualitative insight for guiding the creation and modification of public policies, especially those that affect low-income populations, by revealing the nuances of the lives of those affected by social policy change. From such a framework, evaluators, public administrators, and policymakers working on social policy issues can examine impact and determine how best to direct, or redirect, policy processes that serve low-income populations.

¹ Vobejda, B. (1998, February 7). Spending per recipient has risen since enactment of welfare reform. The Washington Post, p. A2.
² For a comprehensive list of research focusing on those leaving welfare, see the Welfare Information Network website ( and the Research Forum website (
³ Erikson, R. (1993). Descriptions of inequality: The Swedish approach to welfare research. In M. C. Nussbaum, & A. Sen (Eds.), The quality of life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Danielle Hollar, Research Associate, HFRP

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project