States' Welfare Data in Disarray
By Barbara Vobejda and Judith Havemann
Eighteen months after federal lawmakers dramatically changed the nation's welfare program, it is becoming clear that the mass of data the government requires states to collect is in such disarray that it is impossible to determine whether the law is working.
Hampered by serious computer problems and other complications, the federal government has been unable to determine whether states are succeeding in getting as many welfare recipients into jobs as the law requires.
How the issue is ultimately resolved is critical, not only because it is the sole means by which federal lawmakers can gauge which states have effective programs and which need attention, but also because tens of millions of dollars are riding on the answer.
If states fail to move a certain proportion of their caseload into jobs, for example, they could be docked millions of dollars a year. State officials also fear they could be unfairly denied huge federal bonuses because the money must be distributed on the basis of other state data that they argue is far from reliable.
For example, the Health and Human Services Department will award $200 million in a "high performance bonus" this year that will be shared by those states that are most successful at getting welfare recipients into jobs where they stay and advance. But states can define their caseloads differently and choose which information to submit to compete for the bonus.
Also, states are using their own definitions to report on who is leaving the welfare rolls and why. When Florida cuts off someone's benefits because a recipient fails to follow welfare rules, it reports that as a "sanction." But when the same thing happens in Massachusetts, state officials there simply count that family under "other" reasons for leaving the rolls.
That means that a person who leaves the rolls without reporting having a job could, in Massachusetts, be placed in the same category as someone who refuses to follow the rules although in reality the two individuals offer far different pictures of welfare success or failure.
And as it starts comparing one state's data with another's, the federal government is comparing the statistical equivalent of apples with oranges.
"States are concerned that many performance standards ... are being based on data systems that are not capable of producing good information," said William Waldman, the New Jersey welfare director named Thursday to head the American Public Welfare Association, the umbrella group representing welfare departments around the country.
Under the old welfare law, states were required to report basic information about a portion of their caseloads, most of it aimed at ensuring that states were paying the correct amount of benefits to recipients. Under the 1996 law, which gave the states greater flexibility in designing welfare programs, much more information is required, including who receives housing subsidies, medical assistance and child care and who is working or is enrolled in training courses.
Under the temporary rules in effect, states are told to report 67 pieces of information each for at least 3,000 families on their caseloads. But under proposed guidelines to take effect later this year, that number would rise to 178.
Among state officials, the information-gathering process has become one of the most pressing issues in their welfare efforts.
Elaine Ryan, director of legislative affairs at the association of welfare agencies, said when she organized a session on these technical questions at a meeting of state directors last month, she anticipated that a dozen states would show up. She was startled when 43 did.
But despite the high level of anxiety among states, she said the federal government has been unable to give timely or clear guidance about exactly how to report information, what definitions to use and what rules to follow.
Ryan said HHS did not tell states what information to collect until last September, but then required them to collect it dating to July.
"I do wonder what the heck they are doing," she said. "It's really frustrating."
Alabama welfare reform director Joel Sanders said his state has given up competing in two of the four categories on which the "high-performance bonus" will be based. "We'll just lose our chance in those areas," he said. "When we're already strapped, we can't ask the staff to gather additional information."
The bumpy transition into this new world of welfare is not simply a matter of computer mishaps, but a larger question of how to balance competing interests: the need to track a revolutionary new social policy against the danger of placing burdensome mandates on states to collect detailed information.
Some members of Congress argue that the federal government knows too little about what is happening to the millions of families who have left the rolls in recent years.
"As responsible policy makers, I would think we would want to know how many of these families are reaching economic self-sufficiency," said Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), who offered an unsuccessful amendment requiring the federal government to report on the fate of former recipients. "The fact of the matter is, very few states can tell me. No one knows."
But state officials say they are overwhelmed with the task of gathering all the numbers required by the federal government.
"They are asking for too much," said Margarete Gravina, a spokeswoman for Michigan's Human Services Department. She said the federal government estimated that Michigan would spend 9,283 hours a year compiling the data under the welfare law. But when state officials looked at the requirements, they figured a more realistic number was 51,052 hours annually.
"We're going to be spending time collecting data, rather than on creating opportunities that would benefit families," she said.
HHS spokesman Michael Kharfen said he is confident that technical problems will be straightened out in time to award state bonuses this year. And he said the federal government would do its best to balance the concerns of the states with the need to inform policy makers about the effect of the new law.
"What everybody is going to want to see is hard numbers," he said. "That's why we're going to have to be going back and forth on a continual basis with the states. That is a reflection of how serious we take the data."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company