A Conversation on Social Service Policy with David Ellwood

Policy & Practice, June 2012 | Go to article overview

A Conversation on Social Service Policy with David Ellwood


David Ellwood has long been a figure in the story of America's welfare program. With a background in Economics, Ellwood was pivotal in President Clinton's Working Group on Welfare Reform, a major force in the development of what would become the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Today, Ellwood is back at Harvard, serving as the Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government as well as the Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy.

As APHSA gathers for its June Policy forum, TANF, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Workforce Investment Act are all major programs up for congressional consideration through reauthorization. We are also approaching the first national election since the onset of the greatest recession in recent American history, an event that continues to exhibit economic aftershocks in state legislatures where revenue levels have yet to recover to pre-2007 levels. In this context, APHSA welcomes Dean Ellwood as its keynote speaker. Policy and Practice had the opportunity to speak with him recently to get his thoughts on the role of APHSA and state associations in the social service policy arena and how programs have responded in the face of a historic economic crisis.

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P&P: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us and for agreeing to speak at the APHSA Policy Forum. Given your history with low-income support programs, especially here in Washington, D.C., do you have any opinion on the importance of the role played by state associations such as APHSA in terms of informing the evolution of human service policy?

Ellwood: Having been Dean at the Harvard Kennedy school for the last eight years, I haven't had as much time to dedicate to welfare issues, but I can share my experience when I was in the Clinton Administration working with APWA (Note: APHSA was known as the American Public Welfare Association prior to welfare reform.) On the taskforce I was responsible for working with outside organizations. I always enjoyed working with APWA. I learned a lot. These organizations were a source of innovative ideas and a sounding board for ideas we were considering adopting nationally. They gave us a lot of the good and stopped some of the bad.

There are two risks, however, when working with state groups that can really interfere with effective dialogue. The first risk is that states assume that anyone at the federal level is an idiot and thus are immediately dismissive of any new federal ideas without thoughtful reflection. The second risk is that states are so zeroed in on their own individual, short-term interests that they do not talk effectively about the long-term interests of the nation and states. For instance, there is a natural temptation to immediately push for deregulation, "if the federal government would only get off our back ...", but wholesale deregulation can have unintended long-term consequences.

P&P: Having been a key player in what was a historic shift in national welfare policy--what do you think we can ultimately learn from the social services and how they responded to the great recession? What do you believe worked and where do you think the programs struggled?

Ellwood: You do have to be careful what you wish for. I was also completely in favor of moving AFDC toward becoming a work-focused program and establishing some form of time limits with a way of moving those who timed out into some form of work-focused support. …

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