Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Introduction

06/01/2002

Academic and policy interest in the U.S. welfare system has increased dramatically over the past 15 years, an interest that has accelerated and is currently at an all-time high. Beginning in the late 1980s with welfare reform initiatives in a few states around the country and continuing in the first half of the 1990s as more states made changes in their income support programs, welfare reform culminated at the federal level with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996. PRWORA replaced the long-standing federal entitlement program for low-income families and children (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC) with a program financed by state-administered block grants, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The legislation imposed several new requirements on state TANF programs, including lifetime limits on receipt of benefits, minimum work requirements, and requirements for unmarried teenage parents to reside with an adult and continue their education in order to receive benefits. Otherwise, it allowed states to configure their programs as they see fit, continuing a trend of devolving the design and control of familial assistance programs from the federal government to state governments that began earlier in the 1990s.

The enactment of PRWORA provided the impetus for a large volume of research studies aimed at studying its impact and that of changes in other federal income support programs, such as the Food Stamp Program. These studies are now yielding results and reporting new findings on an almost-daily basis. PRWORA is slated to come up for reauthorization in 2002, and it is already clear that research findings will play a significant role in the debate over the directions that welfare reform should take from here.

The Panel on Data and Methods for Measuring the Effects of Changes in Social Welfare Programs of the National Research Council was formed in 1998 to review the evaluation methods and data that are needed to study the effects of welfare reform. Sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through a congressional appropriation, the panel has issued interim and final reports (National Research Council, 1999, 2001).

Early in its deliberations, particularly after reviewing the large number of so-called welfare leaver studies  studies of how families who left the TANF rolls were faring off welfare  the panel realized that the database for conducting studies of welfare reform had many deficiencies and required attention by policy makers and research analysts. In its final report, the panel concluded that welfare reform evaluation imposes significant demands on the data infrastructure for welfare and low-income populations and that . . . inadequacies in the nations data infrastructure for social welfare program study constitutes the major barrier to good monitoring and evaluation of the effects of reform (NRC 2001:146). The panel concluded that national-level surveys were being put under great strain for PRWORA research given their small sample sizes, limited welfare policy-related content, and, often, high rates of nonresponse (see also National Research Council, 1998). State-level administrative data sets, the panel concluded, are of much more importance with the devolution of welfare policy but are difficult to use for research because they were designed for management purposes. In addition, although they have large sample sizes, their content is limited. Surveys for specific states with more detailed content have been only recently attempted  usually telephone surveys of leavers  and the panel expressed concern about the capacity and technical expertise of state governments to conduct such surveys of adequate quality. To date, for example, many surveys of welfare leavers have unacceptably high rates of nonresponse. Overall, the panel concluded that major new investments are needed in the data infrastructure for analysis of welfare and low-income populations.

This concern led the panel to plan a workshop on data collection on welfare and low-income populations for which experts would be asked to write papers addressing in detail not only what the data collection issues are for this population, but also how the quality and quantity of data can be improved. A workshop was held on December 16-17, 1999, in Washington, DC. The agenda for the workshop is listed as an Appendix to this volume. Approximately half the papers presented at the workshop concerned survey data and the other half concerned administrative data; one paper addressed qualitative data. Altogether, the papers provide a comprehensive review of relevant types of data. The volume also contains four additional papers that were commissioned to complement the conference papers. One of them discusses methods for adjusting survey data for nonresponse. The other three papers focus on welfare leavers, a subpopulation of particular interest to Congress that a number of states have studied with grants from ASPE, as well as the importance of understanding the dynamics of the welfare caseload when interpreting findings from these studies.

After the conference, the papers were revised, following National Research Council procedures, to reflect the comments of discussants at the workshop, panel members, and outside reviewers. The additional commissioned papers also were revised in response to comments from panel members and outside reviewers. This volume contains the final versions of the papers.

In this introduction, we summarize each of the 14 papers in the volume. Together, they are intended as a guide and reference tool for researchers and program administrators seeking to improve the availability and quality of data on welfare and low-income populations for state-level, as well as national-level, analysis.

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