Date: April 5, 2001
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Associate
David Schneier, Media Relations Specialist
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>

Data Severely Lacking on Effects of Welfare Reform

WASHINGTON -- Five years after Congress passed legislation to revamp the nation's welfare system, the effects of the reform have been virtually impossible to assess because of shortcomings in the available data needed to conduct such an evaluation, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as well as private foundations have supported a great deal of high-quality research on reform's impact, the report says that major improvements in data collection still are needed to obtain a clearer picture of how the overhaul has affected the poor and the way that states operate social-service programs for them.

"With passage of the legislation in 1996, the nation launched a major social experiment with its safety net programs," said Robert A. Moffitt, chair of the panel that wrote the report, and professor of economics, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. "But we may never fully understand the consequences of this change without stronger federal and state leadership to develop the necessary research infrastructure." The bulk of the law is up for congressional reauthorization next year.

To help close information gaps, HHS should authorize a statistical unit within the agency to oversee data collection for welfare programs, the panel said. This unit, which could be newly formed or created from existing offices, should coordinate research activities between states and the federal government. Such work would require funding increases. Because states need to further develop their data-collection abilities in this area, the department also should expand its current efforts to help them by providing additional technical assistance, holding research conferences, and taking other steps to enhance their data systems.

The welfare-reform law had numerous goals, from increasing employment and self-sufficiency among poor families to giving states more control over their own programs. Since the measure was enacted, millions of people have moved from welfare dependency into jobs. The number of welfare cases has dropped by more than 40 percent in some states, and employment rates have risen sharply. Many observers have characterized the system's overhaul as a success. Others have attributed outcomes to a strong economy over the past several years or to different factors. The panel concluded that, in reality, very little is known about the overall impact of reform or even the effects of its broad components, such as work requirements or time limits on benefits. More is known about specific aspects of reform, such as the effects of different strategies to keep people employed, but the total picture remains incomplete. Evaluators need to strengthen their focus on several key questions for the future: Which elements have worked, why, and for which groups? How have results differed among various populations? How widely do policies and practices vary among and within states? Which aspects of reform should be continued, changed, or simply dropped? Answers to such questions could offer researchers and policy-makers more insights into the law's effectiveness.

The panel found that some types of welfare-reform studies have been overemphasized -- particularly those that address solely the people who have left welfare rolls. Research on these so-called welfare "leavers" tells only one part of reform's story, and does not provide a comprehensive picture of the economic well-being of families. There also has been little examination of how reform has affected children or the low-income population in general, topics that should be research priorities.

The department's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) recently expanded its research agenda to study other important groups, including people who have been systematically discouraged from applying for public aid and those who remain on public assistance. These efforts, which have yet to produce results, should be strengthened, the panel said. Moreover, ASPE should take primary responsibility for defining crucial questions for reform research and evaluation, and identifying important policy issues for welfare programs. Data gaps and imbalances in reform research partly stem from the lack of a comprehensive national research agenda for the topics that should be studied.

Several factors have contributed to what currently is a shaky foundation for the necessary research, including the decentralization of programs and the complexity and scope of welfare reform, the panel said. Even so, policy-makers can help to build up the science base by making new investments in research.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Evaluating Welfare Reform in an Era of Transition for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Committee on National Statistics

Panel on Data and Methods for Measuring the Effects of Changes in Social Welfare Programs

Robert A. Moffitt (chair)
Department of Economics and Population Dynamics
Johns Hopkins Univversity

John L. Adams
Senior Statistician and Head of the Statistical Consulting Services of the Statistics Group
RAND Corp.
Santa Monica, Calif.

Thomas Corbett
Associate Director
Institute for Research on Poverty, and
Senior Scientist
University of Wisconsin

John L. Czajka
Senior Sociologist
Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
Washington, D.C.

Kathryn Edin
Associate Professor of Sociology and Faculty Fellow
Institute for Policy Research
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

Irwin Garfinkel
Mitchell I. Ginsburg Professor of Contemporary Urban Problems
School of Social Work
Columbia University
New York City

Robert M. Goerge
Associate Director and Research Fellow
Chapin Hall Center for Children
University of Chicago

Eric A. Hanushek
Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

V. Joseph Hotz
Professor and Chair
Department of Economics and Policy Studies
University of California
Los Angeles

Richard A. Kulka
Senior Research Vice President of Statistics, Health, and Social Policy
Research Triangle Institute
Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Rebecca A. Maynard
Trustee Professor of Education and Social Policy
Graduate School of Education
University of Pennsylvania

Suzanne M. Randolph
Associate Professor of Family Studies
Department of Family Studies
University of Maryland
College Park

Werner Schink
Chief of Research
California Department of Social Services (retired)


Michele Ver Ploeg
Study Director