NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Devolution and Welfare Reform

August 22, 2001

Devolution of welfare reform efforts from the federal level to the states beginning in 1996 has encouraged more diversity than could have been predicted by looking at state programs predating the federal reforms, say researchers.

While all state welfare reforms focus on "work first" and on improving human service systems, programs vary in tone, structure, spending and operations. Also, programs generally emphasize either work participation by welfare families or overall caseload reduction.

Some variations can be traced to differences in state welfare under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, particularly the emphasis on caseload reduction in states that offer relatively low cash benefits.

  • However, some states with low benefit levels -- for example, Tennessee -- are emphasizing work participation.
  • And some states with centralized AFDC systems, such as Florida and Washington, now give broad discretion to local governments to manage welfare programs.
  • Many states are developing distinct service strategies not seen under AFDC.

To build adaptable and accountable state welfare systems, researchers say the states should integrate services for families with multiple problems and provide more help to the working poor. Also, they say states require stability in federal rules and funding to develop complex institutional arrangements through contracts and interagency agreements and to create expensive information systems. And they point out that currently both federal and state governments lack the local data needed to track not only welfare families but the working poor and others needing aid beyond cash assistance and work training.

Source: Richard P. Nathan and Thomas L. Gais (both Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York, Albany), "Federal and State Roles in Welfare: Is Devolution Working?" Brookings Review, Summer 2001, Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 797-6000.


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