New welfare law fraught with technical hurdles One example: Computers need capability to track 5-year limit on payments


WASHINGTON -- It sounds simple. The federal government will impose a five-year lifetime limit on welfare payments to any family, starting no later than July. But state and federal officials say it will be months, probably years, before they have the computer capability to enforce such restrictions throughout the country.

That is just one example of the practical problems that officials have discovered as they study the bill overhauling welfare that President Clinton signed Aug. 22.

To comply with the new rules, they must create national computer systems to collect information from every state on welfare recipients, on people who owe child support and on all newly hired employees.

In congressional debates, lawmakers almost never mentioned the practical problems of enforcing the five-year limit, for which there was strong bipartisan support, or other aspects of the new law. In their zeal to reduce the federal role, members of Congress paid little attention to the need for uniform national standards and interstate cooperation on some issues.

Federal officials say their power to enforce the law is extremely limited. At the same time, lawyers and advocates for the poor are finding that the rights of welfare recipients have been drastically curtailed by the new law, which eliminates a 60-year-old federal guarantee of cash assistance for the nation's poorest children.

States will have to make big changes in their computer systems to capture the necessary data. Many states say they have not kept track of how long people receive welfare because they had no need for such information.

Iowa's welfare director, Douglas E. Howard, said: "We don't track lifetime time limits now. We'll need the capacity to track people for the rest of their lives."

The success of that effort will depend, in part, on the development of a national data base to keep track of welfare recipients moving across state lines, Howard said. If, for example, a person receives welfare for one year in New York and one year in Ohio before moving to Chicago, those payments count against the lifetime limit, which must be enforced by officials in Illinois. But states now have no way of exchanging data.

A state that fails to comply with the five-year limit stands to lose 5 percent of its federal welfare money under the new law. States can impose penalties on people who violate the new restrictions.

States' performance under the last major welfare law, the Family Support Act of 1988, does not inspire confidence in their ability to carry out the bigger technical challenges of the new law in a timely way.

The 1988 law set detailed standards for automation of child support operations, including the collection and payment of money owed to millions of children by missing fathers. Only one state met the deadline in October for compliance with that law. Today, only 10 states have been certified as being in full compliance.

State officials say they hope that with eight years' experience since passage of the Family Support Act, and with advances in computer technology, they can avoid the mistakes of the past. The 1996 law requires states to collect and report huge amounts of detailed information about welfare recipients and child-support cases.

Each state must establish a data bank of all child-support orders and a separate data bank showing the name, address and employer of every person hired in the state after Oct. 1, 1997, regardless of whether the person owes child support. Information from the two directories will be compared in an effort to locate people who owe child support.

States must share their data with the federal government, which will establish a national register of child-support orders and a national directory of all newly hired employees. The federal government will notify states whenever it finds a match between the two files.

Confronted with these challenges, some states have hired private, profit-making companies to run parts of their welfare, food stamp and other social service programs.

Holli Ploog, senior vice president of Lockheed Martin IMS, the information management subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., which has contracts with 33 states, said, "States will have a lot of difficulties keeping track of time limits and myriad other things the law requires."

The law imposes strict new work requirements on food stamp recipients, allowing childless adults to get coupons for only three months in any three-year period without working. Many states say they do not know how they will enforce that rule.

State officials are pleading with the federal government for guidance and technical assistance. But federal officials are reluctant to step in because the new law says, "No officer or employee of the federal government may regulate the conduct of states" or enforce any provision of the law, except where explicitly allowed by Congress.

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