Feds Make Poor Case for Tracking the Needy

Tod Newcombe Eastern Region Editor

by / February 28, 1998
Tod Newcombe
Eastern Region Editor

After years of debating the pros and cons of welfare, Congress and the president finally changed how we provide relief to the needy. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act limits public assistance and makes it conditional on seeking work.

States now have broad flexibility in how they spend welfare dollars. While some states have reacted cautiously, others have taken bold, sometimes surprising, steps. Wisconsin has all but ended cash aid. Mississippi and other traditionally conservative states are implementing advanced day care programs.

Whether it's due to the strong economy or welfare reform, one thing is inescapable -- more than 1.4 million people have dropped from the rolls since welfare's peak in 1994. And the public seems to approve. As The Economist pointed out: "A hated program that gave government a bad name has been turned into a popular success that enhances government's reputation." A study issued by the University of Michigan seems to confirm that assesment, stating that the number of Americans who trust government is beginning to rise once again, albeit slowly.

Unfortunately, that trust may become tarnished once again if the federal government carries through with its bureaucratic approach to enforcing compliance with eligibility limits through interstate tracking.

Most states believe intrastate tracking is the real issue. Nevertheless, the federal government is focusing attention on welfare participants who cross state lines.

When Congress passed welfare reform, it asked the Department of Health and Human Services to prepare a report on the status of states' information systems for managing welfare programs. That 200-page report -- "Report to Congress on Data Processing and Case Tracking in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program" -- was issued quietly last December.

Not surprisingly, the report says that many of the existing state systems are old, and revamping their software programs to meet the demands of welfare reform will be complex and costly. As for interstate tracking, the report determined that no single computer architecture was the best solution, so it proposed five options.

Terrance Maxwell, executive director of the New York State Forum for Information Resource Management, pointed out that four of the options involve a centralized database of some kind. In these four cases, data about individuals would be transmitted by the states to the database so that other states could run queries and match files. The difference between the centralized options comes down to the level of data retention, response time, level of functionality and costs.

The report is quick to point out that HHS does not assume that the centralized options would be a "federal system," and it emphasizes decisions regarding the development, access to and location of a "national" system should rest with the federal and state governments jointly. However, the report does not dismiss the notion of federal responsibility for the system.

The fifth option, called "broadcasting," would support interstate communication of data through message formats and communication protocols. States could selectively query the records of neighboring states, for example, from which border-crossing applicants are more likely to come. Technologically, broadcasting is simple. It requires no centralized database, needs little centralized administration, and costs are comparatively low. However, HHS ruled out this option, stating that broadcasting would result in a significant workload for all states. That's true, according to Maxwell, but other components of welfare reform, such as data gathering, will also be hard on the states. With broadcasting, states could support the requirements of interstate tracking using their own databases, without having to support a massive national database.

For welfare reform to work, it must be driven by results, not processes. States need to know why some people are successfully finding jobs and keeping them and why others are not. That requires states and localities to share information across organizational boundaries. The information will have to be integrated, synthesized and analyzed as never before. To do so will take a tremendous amount of resources. Diverting those resources away from crucial state systems to build an elaborate national database, which tracks what may be only a negligible number of cases, would be a mistake.

Interstate tracking may be a necessary component of reform, but let's keep it simple and in the perspective of what the country really needs: well-built state information systems that support the business of today's reformed welfare program. *

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