IMPLEMENTING WELFARE REFORM, 1996-2006
This chapter describes the major developments in the process of implementing the welfare reform law of 1996. Its purpose is straightforward: to supply an overview of the most important events, trends, and issues that affected and characterized our nation’s implementation of that welfare overhaul. A brief treatment like the one in this chapter can present only a summary account of these complex developments. A comprehensive investigation of all the relevant aspects of our national experience of welfare policy in the decade or so after the passage of the 1996 law would no doubt fill many volumes. This is particularly true now that we have entered the era of what is sometimes called the newest New Federalism. Because the 1996 law devolved so much authority away from the federal government, the new center of gravity for welfare policy became the states, each of which represents a unique landscape of policy choices, demographics, and economic realities. These factors and others interact in complex ways that resist easy summary in a synoptic account.
Another serious constraint regarding what can be stated with certainty about the welfare system during these years is the simple unavailability of much important data. Poverty researchers have long been familiar with the frustrations associated with attempting to produce timely analysis of policy outcomes when the crucial measurements they need for their work take years to be collected, collated, interpreted, and published. Festering questions plague researchers: How reliable are the numbers in government reports? What are the shortcomings of their sampling methods and what do they leave out? How can we separate out the effects of multiple simultaneous changes in our quest to assess the influence and success of a given policy? In the absence of definitive data, how may we adjudicate conflicting claims about policy effects?
Further problems and challenges complicate the task of reaching even tentative conclusions about the causation of social changes using