Jumble of Data Hampers Welfare Reform
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 computer problems and other complications, the federal government has been unable to determine whether states are 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.
A state that fails to move a certain proportion of its caseload into jobs could be docked millions of dollars a year. State officials also fear they could be unfairly denied huge federal bonuses because unreliable data will be used to determine the distribution of the money.
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 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.