Status Report on Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform, 2001. Future Directions

08/17/2001

ASPE's research plan for the targeted welfare outcomes policy research funds for FY 2001 is designed to meet the overall goal of creating an integrated picture of the low-income population, especially low-income families with children, in the wake of welfare reform. It focuses on broader analyses of the economic condition, health and well-being, socio-demographic characteristics, and the social service needs of low-income individuals, families, and children. Our interest is to cover a wide spectrum of policy interests focusing on welfare outcomes, poverty, working families, supports for low-income populations, the hard-to-serve and other special populations, and effects on children. We envision a broad-based research agenda that:

  • addresses a wide range of topics related to families and children, including economic and other supports for poor families,
  • continues some of our earlier activities to promote, develop, and support state and local capacity for data collection and monitoring studies, by supporting state-level data collection efforts, administrative data linking, and the creation of public-use and restricted-access data files, and
  • facilitates states' monitoring of outcomes for their own state and local populations. These activities include providing grants to build state data collection and research capacities, providing technical assistance to improve the quality of research results, ensuring more uniformity and comparability across studies, and synthesizing results across state and local level monitoring studies.

As in previous years, the welfare research, evaluation, and data projects planned for FY 2001 were designed to complement and enhance other efforts, both within and outside the federal government, to assess and monitor welfare outcomes without undue duplication. They include crosscutting topics, economic supports for poor families, children and youth, family formation, and special populations and local service delivery issues. Planned projects include continued support of secondary data analyses with national-level data sources to add to our understanding of the effects of welfare reform, and continued use of a variety of national surveys for analytical work focused on labor market and economic issues affecting low-income families with children, low-wage workers and the working poor. Our research plan also supports important Census Bureau data collection efforts, such as the Survey of Program Dynamics (SPD), the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the Current Population Survey (CPS), and the American Community Survey (ACS). We are hopeful that these wide-ranging activities will not only increase our understanding of the outcomes of low-income families, but also contribute to the Department's ability to respond to questions about those outcomes. Specific projects planned in each of the topic areas are described in Chapter III.

A recently released study by the National Research Council's Committee on National Statistics(2) gave high marks to the Department for a welfare reform research agenda that "is impressive in scope, volume and diversity."(3) The Panel on Data and Methods for Measuring the Effects of Changes in Social Welfare Programs found that the welfare research offices within the Department "have substantial agendas for welfare reform research and have supported much high quality work" and "the breadth of their activities is considerable." The report acknowledges that the Department "has sponsored and conducted many studies that extensively document trends in the low-income population, both adults and children, and in the welfare recipient population," and continues to say, "these are perhaps the best and most comprehensive monitoring studies." The panel also spoke favorably of the Department's efforts to build state data capacity and data comparability through its support of monitoring studies, such as studies of families leaving welfare.

However, the study has also highlighted some additional factors that need to be considered as the future direction of welfare research is contemplated. The report identifies some important data gaps and offers numerous conclusions and recommendations with respect to defining research questions and outcomes of interest for measuring the effects of welfare reform, as well as the appropriate methods for answering those questions and the data needed to carry out these evaluations. For example, the Panel concluded that:

  • substantial improvements and enhancements of data, from national level surveys to state and local level administrative data, are needed to make them more useful for welfare research;
  • the federal government should take the lead in defining and publicly articulating the key welfare reform research questions, populations and outcomes of interest to ensure that all questions are addressed;
  • more work needs to be done to evaluate the effects of welfare reform, i.e., how has welfare reform changed the outcomes for families and individuals relative to what would have happened in the absence of reform.

The conclusions and recommendations in the Panel's report(4) are designed to build up the "science base" of welfare reform research. Many of these issues are already being addressed by the Department in different ways. Some of them would have budgetary and legislative implications. Overall, we believe that our focus on creating an integrated picture of the low-income population, especially low-income families with children, combined with broader analyses of the economic condition, health and well-being, socio-demographic characteristics, and the social service needs of low-income individuals, families, and children, is consistent with the Panel's far-reaching recommendations. Nonetheless, the Panel's conclusions and recommendations will need to be studied and considered carefully by the Department as future welfare research plans are developed.