H.H.S. Merges Programs To Aid Youths, Families

By Deborah L. Cohen — April 24, 1991 5 min read

Washington--Citing a need to “place greater emphasis and greater focus on the needs of America’s children and families,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan last week announced a reorganization plan that consolidates Head Start and other child-related programs now spread across his agency into a major new unit.

With an annual budget of $27 billion, its own assistant secretary, and a staff of more than 2,000, the new Administration for Children and Families will combine the functions of the Family Support Administration and the Office of Human Development Services and will assume responsibility for the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant now overseen by the Public Health Service.

The administration will encompass many of the major federal programs targeted at low-income children and families, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the Social Services Block Grant.

H.H.S. programs addressing child-support enforcement, adoption assistance, foster care, and child abuse will also fall under the administration’s pur view, as will the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program and the new Child-Care and Development Block Grant.

“With this consolidation, for the first time, the government will have a single agency bringing together the many child and family programs which have been created over the years,” Dr. Sullivan said in a statement announcing the reorganization.

He added that the move would allow the Health and Human Services Department--which he called the “prime advocate in the federal government for the welfare of children, for child health, and for families"--to serve children and families more effectively and provide a “strong base for new initiatives.”

Dr. Sullivan said Jo Anne B. Barnhart, the former head of the Family Support Administration, would head the Administration for Children and Families, assuming the rank of assistant secretary.

Ms. Barnhart is also co-chairing a task force, along with Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget Kevin Moley, to oversee implementation of the reorganization, which officially took effect April 15.

While the department did not promise new resources for the consolidated children’s agency, its announcement said no funding or staff cuts would be made as a result of the reorganization.

Don Bolce, director of government affairs for the National Head Start Association, said he was hopeful that the existing Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, which oversees Head Start, would “fare better” in terms of staffing, training, and support under the reorganization than it did under the Office of Human Development Services.

H.H.S. officials said last week that the new unit, which they characterized as the largest agency in government history to focus mainly on children and families, would heighten the visibility of children’s programs at a time when increased attention is being focused on the multiple problems facing American families.

Education and human-services policymakers have long argued that the fragmentation in services for children and families at all levels of government has been ineffectual and counterproductive, and that more cohesive policies within and across sectors are needed to successfully intervene in the lives of troubled families. (See Education Week, March 15, 1989.)

While the H.H.S. reorganization in itself “does not promise you more effectiveness, it is a step in the direction of more coherence in how we deal with children and families,” said Janet Levy, director of the Joining Forces project for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Joining Forces, which is sponsored jointly by the c.c.s.s.o. and the American Public Welfare Association, promotes collaboration between schools and social agencies in providing services for children and families.

While the H.H.S. action focuses on linking related programs within that agency, Ms. Levy said, “this does represent a step that would make it easier to make the kinds of connections we are saying need to exist across sectors,” including education.

But while agencies “can do better with the resources that are being expended,” she added, the United States will have to make “a different kind of commitment than we have so far” to build coherent policies within and across service sectors.

“A basic, fundamental issue we need to deal with in this country is that we are not committing enough resources to our children and families,” Ms. Levy said. “If we do this [reorganization] and stop, we will have failed.”

The merger of children’s programs within the Health and Human Services Department “can bring about new leadership, visibility, and resources for children and families,” said David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

“But it would be a paper tiger,” he cautioned, “without additional funds and strengthened commitments.”

“If this will give children’s issues more clout,” said Shelley Peck, a program associate for the Children’s Defense Fund, “then it would be terrific, and it does seem to us as though Secretary Sullivan is sincere in his desire to do that.”

But reorganizations, she warned, are “sometimes used as a substitute for real action.”

A lawmaker active on family issues also expressed some wariness.

“While I am pleased to learn of [the department’s] new consolidated focus on children and families,” Representative Patricia Schroeder said in a statement, “I have questions about what the changes will actually be, how they will be effected, and ultimately what they will mean.”

The Colorado Democrat, who chairs the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, said she was particularly concerned about the reassignment of the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant.

“I am hopeful that the changes will reflect more than merely mov4ing around the pieces,” Ms. Schroeder added.

Kate O’Bierne, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, sounded another note of caution about the role of the new agency.

“There is obviously room for better coordination among programs,” Ms. O’Bierne said. “But we can’t forget that one reason why such a need exists is because the federal government keeps designing program after program to respond to a perceived need, to the point where we now have scores [of them].”

“Because I believe the majority of these programs have been sometimes ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst,” Ms. O’Bierne added, “I don’t necessarily welcome this program orientation to the problems of children and families.”

She argued that reforming the tax code and removing “perverse incentives” in the welfare system would have a greater beneficial impact on poor families.

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 1991 edition of Education Week as H.H.S. Merges Programs To Aid Youths, Families