Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Restoring the Entrails of Welfare Reform

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 10:55 AM
President's Room (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Michael L Wiseman, George Washington University and Zachary Parolin, Oxford University
In the summer of 2012 a controversy erupted over a memorandum issued by the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concerning state options for performance reporting for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  Opponents of the Obama Administration claimed that the policy initiative signaled a fundamental change in the direction of the national welfare policy established by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996—it “gutted” welfare reform.  Moreover, it was said, the action was contrary to law.  The issues remain unresolved, and the memorandum has not been rescinded.  This was, in a sense, the leaden side of the “Golden Age of Evidence-Based Policy.”

While much of the controversy can be dismissed as political theatre, the gutting debate touches on important issues of policy, policy research, federalism, and, we argue, professional responsibility.  It is possible that the discussion has inhibited state efforts at finding ways to improve TANF operation.  Whether or not this is true, state innovation contributed to the passage of PRWORA, and experimentation is currently a watchword for better-government enthusiasts of many political stripes.  Some means for building consensus around research strategies needs to be found.  This paper contributes to this search by reviewing the gutting episode.  We begin with the memorandum and the response.  We then review the record of the TANF program and the national apparatus for reaping the benefits of experimentation in the state “laboratories of federalism.”  We argue that while there is some justification in criticism of the Administration’s strategy, the real issues involve finding methods of doing welfare well, and as conducted the guts debate probably retarded this search.  We find it unfortunate that many (but not all!) authorities committed to “evidence-based policy” failed during this episode to point out the importance of experimentation and the institutional issues involved.  Moreover, Congressional Budget Office scoring procedures produced what we argue was a faulty estimate of likely budget impacts that contributed to the political case against the ACF initiative.  We outline three examples of state experiments that might usefully contribute to productive re-design of TANF participation requirements, given that the present rules have no evidence backing whatsoever.

Full Paper: