Status Report on Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform, 2002. Future Directions

11/14/2002

ASPE's research plan for the targeted welfare outcomes funds for FY 2002 is designed to meet the overall objective of creating an integrated picture of the low-income population, especially low-income families with children, as we move to the next phase of welfare reform. We continue our focus on broader analyses of the economic conditions, 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 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 projects 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.

Implementing a broad-based research agenda that addresses this wide range of welfare outcomes research is one of ASPE's most important roles within the Department.

As in previous years, the welfare research, evaluation, and data projects planned for FY 2002 are 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 projects that address several of the Administration's priority themes, including encouraging work and self-sufficiency, promoting healthy marriage and strong families, improving child well-being, expanding state flexibility and accountability, expanding the use of faith-based and community-based organizations, and addressing the needs of special populations. Our planned projects also address the Conference Committee's research priorities for use of welfare outcomes funding. 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 for FY 2002 are described in Chapter III.

More broadly, we also continue to evaluate National Academy of Sciences recommendations to enhance the quality of welfare outcomes research. Conference report language accompanying the Fiscal Year 1998 and 1999 appropriations for welfare outcomes research funding included the recommendation that the Department "submit its research plan to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to provide further guidance on research design and recommend further research." Accordingly, we provided a total of over $1 million to the NAS in Fiscal Years 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 to convene an expert panel to evaluate current and future welfare reform research.

The aforementioned Panel on Data and Methods for Measuring the Effects of Changes in Social Welfare Programs' released an interim report, Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Framework and Review of Current Work, Interim Report, in September 1999. It provided a framework for conducting evaluations of welfare program changes, reviewed current Departmental efforts to evaluate these changes, and provided the Panel's initial conclusions and recommendations. The short-run recommendations for welfare evaluation strategies were consistent with the Department's approach to research on welfare reform, and many of the recommended steps were already being taken.

The Panel's final report, Evaluating Welfare Reform in an Era of Transition (2) , released in April 2001, highlighted some additional factors that need to be considered as the future direction of welfare research is contemplated. The report identified some important data gaps and offered 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. It discussed research designs and methods for the study of welfare reform outcomes, and needed areas and topics of research. The report also addressed alternative federal and state data sources, the limitations of currently available data, and appropriate evaluation design and methods for analysis. In short, while applauding the Department for its broad-based welfare reform research agenda, it highlighted the need for further improvements and expansions in data collection, development of research questions, and methodological work to build up the "science base" of welfare reform research.

The Department has taken, or is taking, steps to address several of the Panel's recommendations. For example, our efforts to build capacity for conducting high-quality program evaluations at the state level and for conducting household surveys of low-income and welfare populations continue. We have committed resources to help improve national household survey questions to better measure program participation and benefit receipt. A project to improve the usefulness of state-level administrative data is planned. Improvements in state data reporting are included in the Administration's welfare reform proposal, as are changes to broaden the definition of assistance. State-specific data sets produced by each of the grantees studying welfare leavers have been made available for secondary data analyses of welfare outcomes measures. In addition, we have published a synthesis report that includes administrative data findings from all 15 of the ASPE-funded leavers studies. Study and consideration of other Panel conclusions and recommendations will continue.