Status of Research on the Outcomes of Welfare Reform, 2000. General Strategies for Understanding the Outcomes of Welfare Reform


Significant provisions included in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, and most notably the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, are subject to reauthorization in 2002. The upcoming reauthorization process adds a sense of immediacy to understanding the effects of welfare reform within the context of the devolution of responsibility for major social programs from the federal government to the states. Questions about the implementation and outcomes of welfare reform are legion and encompass a broad range of interests and perspectives. The Department acted early to create a research, evaluation and data strategy that would assure that the implementation of welfare reform and its effects would be documented. The infusion of Policy Research funding dedicated to studying welfare outcomes has been invaluable to our efforts to add to and enhance the information about welfare reform outcomes that will be available to the Congress and other interested parties.

There is a broad array of ongoing research about welfare reform being funded by the Department and other public and private funders. We have used the targeted Policy Research funds to fully fund some projects, to fund specific portions of some larger studies, and to co-fund with other federal and state agencies yet other projects. As a result our research, evaluation and data activities cover a wide spectrum of welfare outcomes policy interests.

To optimize the potential that these targeted funds will increase the Department's understanding of the outcomes of welfare reform, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) has created, often with other funding partners involved, a portfolio of studies and strategies. Careful attention has been paid to identifying on-going research, evaluation, and data activities which could be enhanced or modified, identifying activities being funded or planned by other entities that might provide joint-funding opportunities, to identifying knowledge gaps, and to avoiding unnecessary duplication.

In keeping with the recommendations of the conferees, our research agenda over the past three years has covered a broad array of topics that complement other public and private efforts to assess the outcomes of welfare reform. We have funded studies that measure outcomes for a broad population of low-income families, examine diversion practices, and measure family hardship and well-being including the utilization of other support programs. Projects are also in place to assess the effects of welfare reform on current, former and potential welfare recipients and other special populations (e.g., child-only cases, people with mental health and substance abuse problems and other disabilities, immigrant families) affected by state TANF policies. While some of our research projects involve the collection and use of state-specific surveys and state and federal administrative data, with explicit attempts to increase state and local capacity for data collection efforts, we are working to facilitate greater comparability in state and local level studies and continue to provide leadership in national-level survey work. We are also continuing our support for efforts at Iowa State University to develop state-level data on low-income families that can be integrated with national data collection efforts. Our specific activities and plans in each of the recommended areas are summarized below.

Despite the breadth and scope of these efforts, from a research perspective our knowledge is still quite limited in many areas, and many factors can limit what research can accomplish. For example, since welfare reform has been implemented in the context of a B national economy, we know little about the effect of welfare reform in other economic circumstances. There is wide variation in the design and application of policies across states, between local sites, and even from worker-to-worker. State policies and organizational structures continue to evolve and, in some cases, state responsibilities are further devolved. We know little about low-income families who do not become welfare recipients, and people who leave assistance may be difficult to track over time. Many variables other than welfare policies (such as the economy) affect the outcomes of welfare reform, and these variables often have confounding effects. Because of these factors, the ability of research, evaluation, and data to completely answer questions is always limited.