Handing off welfare: How will it work?

February 10, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

"AN ANTIDOTE for anecdote'' is former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh's description of the $30 million ''Assessing the New Federalism'' project just launched by the Urban Institute.

The idea is to track over several years the effects on children and families as the federal government hands off massive social responsibilities to the states.

Programs like welfare, Medicaid and job training typically get bogged down in selective story-telling and ideological debate. Mr. Thornburgh, who co-chairs an advisory panel for the Urban Institute's research program, witnessed the rhetorical wars first-hand in two terms as governor of Pennsylvania. Now he wants to ''give real data and authoritative analysis a chance to play a role in the devolution experience.''

It's hard to recall any nongovernmental social-policy research effort that ever approached the scale of what the Urban Institute will now undertake.

Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation is the lead funder for a $30 million research grant. Government spending and social-health indicators will be gathered from all 50 states and made available for any government, researcher or citizen on the World Wide Web. To supplement those efforts, sophisticated national polls will be conducted on the condition of children and families.

America's great high-tech skills are polling, data analysis and Internet communications. Our failings include the prevalence of poverty and joblessness, family dissolution, teen-age pregnancy, child neglect and abuse in an affluent nation.

''Assessing the New Federalism'' will try to apply our big strength to our big weakness. It comes at the moment of a rough bipartisan consensus on devolution -- that a top-down federal model failed, and now the states will shape their own welfare and social policies.

The National Governors' Association assembled in Washington last week amid worries about funding and rules under the landmark welfare reform passed last year. The Clinton administration's message was what governors wanted to hear: Spend federal welfare funds pretty much as you please. Just make sure you don't ''circumvent the work requirements'' imposed by Congress.

Obvious evidence

The welfare bill, substituting a block grant for the 60-year-old open-ended federal guarantee of aid for needy children and their parents, is the most obvious evidence of the devolution trend. But there are others.

Total state and local spending, once a fraction of Washington's, now appears to be larger. State and local government employment has reached 15.6 million while the federal government's has slipped below 2 million. The Supreme Court is taking states' rights more seriously. And President Clinton is arguably even more ''devolutionist'' than Ronald Reagan was.

Alice Rivlin, later to become Mr. Clinton's budget director and now vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, argued in TC 1992 book that Washington was so egregiously overextended that it should turn most domestic programs, from transportation to education, over to the states. She excepted income-support programs for individuals.

Now she says: ''If welfare now is to be more of a temporary transition to job training and work, arguably it should be sent out of Washington, because these programs will succeed only if there is a total commitment by the states and the local communities, by public agencies and businesses and churches and community groups, to doing it and doing it well.''

But how does a vast, variegated nation, with 50 states all fashioning their own policies, learn what's working, what's failing, the impact of budget shifts, the types of state-local relationships that produce best results?

That's where the Urban Institute initiative comes in: a mother lode of data, gathered from across the nation, assembled and analyzed by social scientists, overseen by policy experts of various persuasions and disseminated to policy-makers and the public.

The effort is co-chaired by Anna Kondratas, a high official in three federal departments under Republican administrations, and Alan Weil, until now executive director for health policy in the cabinet of Colorado's Democratic Gov. Roy Romer.

They are not trying to judge devolution in advance but to focus on its achievements, its shortcomings, best practices and actual outcomes for children and families. The state-by-state data will go on the Internet in April, (www.urban.org) providing the tools for constructive debate about perplexing social issues.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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