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A Bottom-Up Look at Welfare Reform

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Congress and the Clinton administration are barreling toward changing both the form and function of the country's social safety net, a system of programs that is cumbersome at best and broken at worst.

However, few people, even members of Congress and state legislators, understand how awkwardly current assistance programs fit together for real people. This blind spot makes it likely that the dramatic proposals moving through Congress to put states in charge will repeat problems that plague the current federally driven system.

Earlier this year, the nonpartisan Institute for Educational Leadership conducted a hands-on exercise in which members of Congress, state legislators, their staffs, and other policymakers stepped into the shoes of a typical working-poor family in San Diego and applied for assistance from more than 20 federal, state, and local programs. Participants became a "virtual" family, the Hernandez family: Carlos (a U.S. citizen), his wife Yolanda, their four children, and Yolanda's sister (Alicia).

Real front-line workers traveled from San Diego to staff the agency "offices" located around a large room set aside for the purposes of the experiment. Included were benefit analysts for Aid for Families with Dependent Children and Medicaid, an employment and training specialist funded by the Job Training Partnership Act, a school nurse-practitioner, a school-based "family-services advocate," a child-care coordinator, a city housing assistant, an Internal Revenue Service taxpayer specialist on the earned-income tax credit, and local health department staff members responsible for programs such as child health and immunization.

Some important and surprising insights emerged from this exercise--insights with significant implications for how the country's public safety-net programs might be revamped as states slide into the policy driver's seat.

None of the Ph.D.s, lawyers, elected officials, administrators, or assorted policy wonks participating in the exercise could deal competently with the mounds of paperwork that would face the barely literate Hernandez family. And the 800-page workbook of application forms and descriptive materials supplied by the iel was incomplete: It would have been more than 600 pages longer if it had included all of the duplicate copies of forms, informational booklets, instructions, and applications for county as well as city housing programs.

Imagine how daunting the system must be to a real family. How can we cut the paperwork, yet be sure to target funding and help where it is most needed?

Just about everyone participating in the exercise lied, cheated, or purposely withheld information. It seemed like the only sensible thing to do. When faced with the reality of the current system, members of Congress as well as senior staff members who draft or administer programs distorted or conveniently "forgot" such bottom-line facts as the work history of Carlos and Yolanda, Carlos' income, or the specifics about Alicia (who was not a documented U.S. citizen). For example, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., reported that his Hernandez-family team "thought we would get more money if we didn't talk about our work history," even though these facts were clearly laid out in the case study. Will block grants to states simplify the system and reduce the gamesmanship, or will they simply change a few rules of the game?

There is a sharp distinction between entitlement programs (such as afdc, Medicaid, and food stamps) and categorical programs funded with finite appropriations each year, and that difference stood out in high relief. Virtually all of the categorical programs--such as job training, Head Start, housing, and child care--rationed limited funds by targeting "priority groups" or having long waiting lists. So, while the hypothetical Hernandez family was eligible for most of the programs they applied for, they would only get actual help from about half, primarily because of their link to entitlement programs. As Congress transforms entitlement programs for individuals into block grants to states, will "stitch in time" help be even harder for families like the Hernandezes to get? Will "priority groups" constantly shift to respond to the latest local scandal or political hot potato? Will any assistance ever be a certainty?

Where the Hernandez family ends up depends primarily on where it starts, not on its real needs or its ability to benefit from aid. For example, the father, Carlos, needed help getting a job. But the quickest way for him to get job assistance was to already be receiving afdc. With the increased authority under block grants, will states be able to provide just-in-time help for the likes of the Hernandez family living at the margin? Or will the fastest road to other services continue to be receiving afdc?

The Achilles' heel of work and training for low-income families is child care. Even for parents like Yolanda and Carlos who want to work, the logistics of navigating the jumble of child-care programs are daunting. Yolanda's sister provided child care in this instance. But what if she returned to Mexico? Each child would be eligible for a different program, each in a different location, and each with different operating hours (full-day, half-day, after-school, or a couple of hours here, a couple there). Besides, the best programs, like Head Start, are already oversubscribed. We want adults to work. We also want children to be safe and nurtured so that they, too, can grow up to be responsible and productive adults. But how can parents work, or look for work, if they can't find decent care for their children?

In our experiment, there was a Catch-22 when it came to housing. In San Diego, the Hernandez family would have a three- to five-year wait before being considered for public or assisted rental housing. And even if a two- or three-bedroom apartment became available, this family of seven would not get it because federal housing rules forbid putting a family that large into anything smaller than a four-bedroom apartment. In the meantime, though, the family would continue to be stuffed into the one-bedroom apartment they currently rent. How helpful are all of the social-services and educational programs aimed at self-sufficiency if people have no options but to live like sardines?

Whether they like it or not (and many do not) front-line social-services workers across the spectrum spend from 70 percent to more than 90 percent of their time with paper and computers, not with people. Old-fashioned caseworkers who help families put the pieces together are, with few exceptions, extinct. They have morphed into traffic cops who spend their time double-checking eligibility, calculating error rates, and weeding out the deceptions that the system encourages in the first place. Would it be a fair swap to allow more human error in return for greater productivity and the one-on-one contact that might actually change lives? Or will we continue to be stuck with aparanoid system that would rather prevent one audit exception than enable 20 families to get their feet on the ground?

Finally, not even the most sophisticated legislators or policy experts had a firm grip on all of the federal, state, and local aid programs involved in the exercise. No wonder: Programs at the federal level alone originated in nine different Congressional committees and nine Congressional subcommittees, and they are administered by six different executive-branch departments, one independent agency, and seven agencies within departments. Since fragmentation at the federal level has trickled down to states and localities, how well prepared are states to do a better job than their federal counterparts of connecting the programmatic dots?

State legislators who participated in the exercise freely admitted that their states would have a lot of work to do before they could effectively assume additional responsibilities under block grants. One commented that, with 50 different states setting their own rules, "we could very well have a system that is worse" than the system confronting the Hernandez family

Legislators were also surprised to discover that their own states, not the federal government, were the source of much of the complexity. This is consistent with a recent General Accounting Office report that found that the federal block grants of the 1980s didn't reduce the paperwork burden at the local level, even though states no longer had to report very much to the federal government.

Having survived the experience as the Hernandez family, one seasoned Congressional staff aide wryly expressed surprise that there were so few shootings in welfare offices. Others left the exercise saying "surely we can do better." We can. But only if we learn from experience.

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