The Changing Direction of Social Policy

By Ryan, Elaine M. | Policy & Practice, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Changing Direction of Social Policy


Ryan, Elaine M., Policy & Practice


In 1996, the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) ushered in a new era of reform of a wide range of public health and human service programs. A decade later, Congress has changed the direction of social policy once again. However, while programs such as welfare, child care, child support enforcement, and Medicaid have undergone some noteworthy changes over the past 10 years, the Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005 will profoundly affect the scope and breadth of federal benefit programs serving millions of low-income children, families, and adults in the United States. There are many messages from Washington contained in this law, but one is clear: the federal government intends to reduce its financial commitment to entitlement programs. And states are presented with a complex array of mandates, penalties, and policy tools to chart their own course in the coming years.

Perhaps, 10 years ago it was simpler to deduce the direction of federal policy than it is today. Then, the congressional leadership extolled the virtues of inspiring personal responsibility for low-income recipients of welfare and child care, and states were buoyed by the confidence expressed in how state "laboratories of democracy" would lead the federal government out of the morass of increasing cash assistance caseloads and decades of family dependency. And so, the federal entitlement programs of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and At-Risk Child Care were replaced with block grants to states that sparked a devolution revolution of innovative program planning for low-income families. In a few short years under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, more women left welfare for work than at any time in our nation's history, and states were credited with caseload reduction. Investments in child care grew to such levels that in nearly every state every dollar available for child care was expended in support of families making the transition from welfare to work. The focus shifted from cash receipt to life after welfare, job retention, and earnings progression. In stark comparison to six decades of federally directed efforts, states were roundly credited for accomplishing so much change in such a brief time.

That acclaim was muted in recent years by congressional demands to achieve greater work participation among the clients left on the TANF caseload. The oft-invoked adage of "work is better than welfare" may indeed be replaced with "work on welfare is better," because the new requirements set forth in the Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005--which finally reauthorizes the welfare reform law--will challenge states to increase work participation rates, on average, by 69 percent by the next fiscal year. According to the Congressional Research Service, currently 339,600 TANF participants are working the adequate number of hours to count toward the states' federal work participation rates, but 236,000 additional clients will need to find employment for states to meet a 50 percent rate. The federal financial penalty for failure to meet this new performance threshold will total nearly $1 billion and rise with each succeeding year. While federal funding for child care will increase by $200 million in each of the next five years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of implementing the mandates of the new law will fall $3.5 billion short of the resources needed to attain such performance goals.

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With respect to child support enforcement, PRWORA mandated the development of an expansive new infrastructure of tools to establish paternity and support orders, and to identify and collect child support owed to low-income families. The federal mandates on states to create new inter- and intra-state systems were numerous and costly. The "personal responsibility" message from Washington was imbedded in every aspect of this new law, and the federal government agreed to undertake a federal financial partnership with states in the implementation and execution of the program mandates. …

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