Academic journal article Social Work

Devolution and Welfare Reform: Re-Evaluating "Success"

Academic journal article Social Work

Devolution and Welfare Reform: Re-Evaluating "Success"

Article excerpt

Passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) (P.L. 104-193) fundamentally changed the structure of the public assistance program providing income support to poor families in the United States. PRWORA, commonly called "welfare reform," is an example of devolution, or the process through which upper levels of government transfer powers or functions to lower levels of government (Kincaid, 1998). Specifically, PRWORA devolved responsibility for the design and implementation of cash aid programs from the federal to state governments under the premise that the states needed flexibility to create innovative programs that would end welfare dependency among recipients. Following PRWORA's passage, policymakers, pundits, and some scholars pointed to significant declines in welfare caseloads as proof that state-run programs are more effective than the federal program they replaced. However, this assertion has been called into question on the basis of data from the recent U.S. economic recession (that is, the Great Recession, which began in 2007). Notably, from 2007 to 2009, the number of U.S. children living in poverty increased by almost 12 percent (my calculations on the basis of data from http://www. census.gov/cgi-bin/saipe/national.cgi?year=2007& ascii=#SA31), whereas the number of families receiving cash assistance increased by only 5.8 percent (my calculations on the basis of data from http:// www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/data-reports/). In addition, caseloads across states were not equally responsive to this sudden increased need. Despite increased child poverty, 13 states reported less than 10 percent growth in welfare caseloads, and 20 states reported reduced caseloads during this same period. Although many state caseloads started to grow in 2009, continued caseload reductions were reported by 11 states from 2009 to 2010. This unequal responsiveness to acute economic declines among devolved welfare programs has renewed discussion about whether welfare needs to be restructured.

This article investigates whether state and local governments are administering welfare in ways that reduce dependency while providing adequate benefits for poor families--in other words, if they are fulfilling the intention of PRWORA. To that end, this article presents an evaluation of research conducted after passage of PRWORA. In general, this body of research assessed the ways states are exercising their new discretionary powers over public assistance programs. Two questions of interest are (1) whether devolution prompted states to use the program flexibility granted in PRWORA to create effective, innovative programs that could be diffused to other localities and (2) whether states are using their powers to enact the most restrictive programs that will reduce caseloads and avoid attracting welfare recipients from other areas. In addition, this article examines whether devolution is likely to contribute to the return of discriminatory practices in welfare programs that were common before the 1960s. On the basis of this review of the literature, recommendations are presented for new welfare reform so that these public programs will truly function as a safety net for poor families in need of assistance.

It is imperative for social workers to understand the limitations of the current welfare program for several reasons. First, as emphasized by NASW (2003), promoting economic security is consonant with the fundamental social work value of ensuring that the basic needs of poor families are met. Second, because social workers engage with poor families in various settings (for example, homeless shelters, mental health clinics, domestic violence agencies), these professionals are in key positions to advocate for poor people. As advocates, social workers can influence legislation by informing legislators about the specific barriers and hardships that poor people face within the legislators' jurisdictions, especially the hardships created by insufficient access to cash assistance. …

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