Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

When Social Program Responsibilities Trickle Down: Impacts of Devolution on Local Human Services Provision

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

When Social Program Responsibilities Trickle Down: Impacts of Devolution on Local Human Services Provision

Article excerpt

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) shifted responsibility for public assistance from the federal government to the states. This study examined early impacts of this devolution and related program reductions on local service authorities in Illinois. Based on surveys from 101 large townships responsible for administering General Assistance, medical assistance, and emergency needs programs, we found that 60 percent of these localities experienced increased service demands. These demands not only placed pressure on limited local programming funds, but also transformed local service populations in subtle and unintended ways. Reports of bureaucratic mistreatment and confusion also were common as states implemented PRWORA changes. Local responses to increased service demands were variable, with many localities increasing expenditures but expressing reservations about longer term funding given local tax limits. Follow-up surveys with 40 township officials two years later found that a declining economy and impending Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) five-year time limits were intensifying township program concerns. The implications of these findings for the development and monitoring of state and local public assistance systems are discussed.


The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) not only substantially reduced benefit entitlements for disadvantaged citizens, but also provided states with unprecedented latitude to design their own public welfare systems. Proponents of this intergovernmental transfer of responsibilities argued that states would be more sensitive to local conditions, and that state program experimentation could result in innovative program development. Critics countered that service devolution stripped the poor of minimal income protections, and that states might engage in a "race to the bottom" to cut benefits (Ellwood, 1996; Greenburg, 1996).

The impact on existing local service systems as federal entitlements were eliminated received minimal attention in these service devolution debates. Yet, local governments traditionally have been the service provider of last resort for poor persons through General Assistance programs (Lav, Lazere, Greenstein, & Gold, 1993), which raises the specter that disentitled persons may increasingly turn to local governmental programs for assistance. General Assistance coverage has been cut back in recent years and varies widely across states, but 40 states still provided programs in 1998 (Gallagher, Uccello, Pierce, & Reidy, 1999). A related issue concerns the impact of welfare reforms on local voluntary providers as the public sector decreases program commitments.

Mayors in large cities recognized these issues, and argued that social service devolution could result in unfunded mandates for local governments (Goshko, 1995). This prospect was particularly daunting given that welfare recipients often reside in large urban areas facing ongoing fiscal crises (Fuchs, 1998; Kahn & Kamerman, 1998). Nonetheless, these concerns were subsumed as governors argued for the shifting of program control from the federal to the state level (Weir, 1998).

Local social services issues similarly have received limited empirical research attention since PRWORA changes were implemented. Yet, the capability and willingness of local governments and providers to meet service demands will be critical to the well-being of poor persons, particularly as they encounter TANF time limits and other PRWORA service restrictions. Issues related to the appropriate roles of local governments in providing services for the indigent also will become more pronounced in this changing public welfare environment.

Local governmental officials thus can provide important and overlooked perspectives on welfare reform impacts. …

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