The Welfare Spin

You can read the numbers on welfare reform in lots of different ways.
July 2000
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Some questions are very simple and yet very difficult at the same time. When it comes to the 1996 federal welfare-reform law, the key question can be stated in a few words. Has the law moved people out of poverty and dependence the way it was supposed to? It's a simple question. It's just hard to answer.

Not that there's a shortage of people--from the most seasoned social service program evaluators to the greenest journalists--willing to jump in and offer evidence. That's been happening more or less routinely since the very day the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed. A wide variety of snap-shot portraitists has made sweeping statements about the success or failure of the experiment based on what's happened in just one state, or one county, or--in this day and age of trend-by-anecdote--even one single case. But drawing fair and appropriate conclusions from all the stories is another matter entirely.

In the coming months, there's little doubt that a whole new batch of welfare punditry will start appearing. That's because the law is approaching Year Five, the year the feds, according to its provisions, must begin to turn the screws on states when it comes to that bottom- line promise "to end welfare as we know it."

As the law was written, welfare beneficiaries are supposed to be limited to a lifetime maximum of five years on public assistance. States can adopt a tighter limit than that if they wish to do so, but in 2001, all states must comb through their caseloads and hope that the number of five-year recipients comes to less than 20 percent of the total. If the percentage is higher than that, the states risk penalties of varying severity, depending on their numbers.

As the date approaches, analysts have begun filing dispatches from the welfare-reform front lines. The news is very good and very bad and everything in between. Often it depends on who happens to be reporting it. Sometimes it seems to depend on nothing more than who is writing the headline. Two recent stories, both published on the same day in June, offer an example. From the Washington Post: "Welfare Reform's Progress Is Stalled." From the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Welfare Overhaul Benefits Marriage, Kids."

There's nothing sinister about this. It remains possible to look at the numbers, accept the fact that millions of people all over the country have moved off the rolls and into jobs, and flatly declare victory. It's equally possible to argue that significant numbers of former and current welfare recipients are simply being transferred out of the category of public client and into the category of chronic working poor.

There is, however, one standard by which any fair-minded student of welfare can declare victory. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act has stimulated some of the best thinking and most active experimentation ever witnessed under any federal program in United States history.

Anyone who is interested can spend months roaming the Web pages of the Urban Institute, the Welfare Information Network, the American Public Human Services Association, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. or the federal Department of Health and Human Services to learn about successful programs dealing with work-force readiness and day care, faith-based social services and responsible fatherhood, teen- pregnancy reduction and effective health care screening, creative transportation projects and job-creating tax incentives. Overall, welfare reform has helped researchers hone in on the pathology--and the potential--of the chronic poor: why they are poor, why they stay poor and what it might take to move them out of poverty. At the same time, an enormous amount has been learned about government's ability-- at all levels, federal, state and local--to respond and adapt to sweeping changes in policy.

This was a huge part of the rationale behind the 1996 law in the first place. The law was supposed to cut states and localities loose to experiment and then to monitor the results. Some localities have used their freedom to become remarkable innovators; others have botched the job. Some states have spent their federal money on improving day care, enhancing the earned income tax credit or expanding health care benefits; others have turned the cash over to their highway departments.

All of this should serve as a reminder that the next wave of evaluation mania needs, in and of itself, to be scrutinized very carefully. In the coming year, bushels of data and apple-carts full of anecdotes will spill onto the pages and screens of the local and national media. Virtually all of it will be aimed at trying to support one sweeping assessment of welfare reform or another.

But this will be precisely the time to resist any rush to sweeping judgment. It will be a time to pore over the disparate information and varying experiences of states and localities and begin to piece together a more complete picture not simply of whether the law has worked, but of what strategies can succeed given the particular circumstances of individual jurisdictions and individual people. It is in applying those lessons that governments will reap the real benefits of welfare reform.