Panel Paper: State of the States: Serving Welfare Recipients in a Post-Recessionary Fiscal and Political Environment

Thursday, November 7, 2013 : 12:10 PM
Plaza I (Ritz Carlton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Elizabeth Laird, Mathematica Policy Research
The recent economic downturn created a shifting and uncertain landscape where states and localities are charged with “doing more with less.”  Welfare agencies are operating in times of budget cuts, staff layoffs, and hiring freezes while managing sharp increases in the demand for public assistance programs. In addition, administrators and workers are navigating a political environment where program investments using public funds are closely scrutinized.

Based on findings from a study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research on behalf of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Office of Research, Planning and Evaluation (OPRE), this paper examines the welfare environment in which states are operating since the economic downturn. Based on telephone interviews with TANF program administrators and/or policy specialists in 30 states, it delves into five primary topics.

First, we document how changes in the labor market, such as the unemployment rate and wage levels, tie to fluctuations in the public assistance caseloads and the potential implications of those changes on agency priorities, funding, and staff workloads. 

Second, we discuss the nature of and response to state and local budget challenges. For example, how states have initiated agency reorganizations to increase program efficiency or imposed hiring freezes, layoffs, and staff reorganizations. In a few states, we have documented reductions in the amount of the TANF grant for families.

Third, we look at the policy and procedural changes that have intentionally or unintentionally influenced the TANF caseload size and composition. For example, states that remove hard-to-employ clients from the caseload into a solely-state funded program may have a smaller and more work-ready TANF caseload that those who keep all clients on the caseload.  Other changes may include implementation of upfront program requirements, moving from a partial- to full-family sanction, and/or increasing the earned income disregard.

Fourth, we examine how welfare agencies have modified their service approach (for example, more or less “work first”) in the post-recessionary environment. We also discuss the menu of services available and how the amount and types of services and supports now compare to the past.  

Finally, we describe potentially promising engagement and job placement strategies and the measures states are using to document program performance.

Data collection for this study was completed in March 2013. Findings will be publicly released by September 30, 2013, the project end date.  These results have not been presented at any other conference or public venue.