Tracking results of welfare reform

October 05, 1997|By Sara Engram

AS WELFARE reform rolls forward, how will states know whether the process produces the dire side effects some critics feared? The answer is, most states will be clueless -- at least in the kind of hard data that counts.

As in most social services reforms or initiatives, the new federal welfare law is long on bureaucratic requirements but short on provisions for ensuring that states collect the information on which sound judgments about its effects can be based.

Fortunately, Maryland is better off than many states in this regard. A long-running research partnership between the state's Department of Human Resources and the University of Maryland, Baltimore's School of Social Work has been tracking the state's welfare reform efforts.

This week, the project yielded an intriguing glimpse of the effects of the first nine months of reform requirements on poor families in Maryland. The results are preliminary, but revealing.

Professor Catherine Born led the study, which tracked 1,600 welfare cases which which were closed between between Oct. 1, 1996 and June 30, 1997. These were families who left the welfare rolls under Maryland's version of welfare reform, which began last fall as the Family Investment Program.

The study, which will continue to track cases and collect data, is examining patterns of welfare use, the types of employment found by welfare recipients, the impact of reform on foster care and other child welfare programs and whether these families end up back on the welfare rolls.

Over time, these seemingly dull bits of data pile up into patterns that can help tell the difference between successful reform that discourages welfare dependence and bureaucratic tinkering at the expense of poor families.

Critics had warned that welfare reform would cause more families to lose their children to foster care. In fact, of some 2,000 children whose families left the welfare rolls in the first six months of the state's new system, only three children, all from the same troubled family in Baltimore City, have entered the foster care system.

There were also worries that many families would be thrown off the welfare rolls for failing to conform to work or job training requirements. But only 4.8 percent of the cases were terminated because of non-compliance.

Almost half of these families had been receiving cash assistance for one year or less. What does that say about the likelihood for nudging long-term recipients off the rolls?

Of those who have to return to welfare, the highest rates occur among cases closed at the request of the client.

What lies behind these trends? The most significant factor for predicting a return to welfare has proven to be the age of the client's youngest child. Not surprisingly, the parents with younger children seem to have a harder time remaining independent.

During the first nine months of Maryland's reform program, the vast majority (96 percent or more) of the cases leaving the welfare rolls were families consisting of a single parent and one child.

In the average case of those leaving welfare, the mother is about 30 years old, had her first child before the age of 21 and had been employed sometime during the past 2 1/2 years. On average, the youngest child in these cases is 6 years old, with one of three cases involving a family with a child under the age of 3.

Much of this data is unsurprising -- common sense would tell us it's usually harder for parents of younger children to hold a job. But what is surprising after all the years of criticism of the welfare system is that this kind of data is not already available.

This country's admirable willingness to help the downtrodden has never been shored up with an understanding of the importance of knowing whether you are doing any good. The lack of sound evaluation of social services programs is the embarrassing secret of the social services industry.

Without proper data, don't expect successful reform. That's why, with the UMB study tracking results, Marylanders can be more hopeful in this regard than most other Americans.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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