Data about social welfare programs for children are fragmented and incomplete and lack a cohesive framework or policy ownership. Given this, it is important to identify the priority of policy issues and the specific research questions about PRWORA and child well-being when research is conducted. These early steps will assist in then defining the population of interest, the appropriate methodology, and the data sources available (National Research Council, 1999).
Several key policy issues have been identified for states examining the impact of welfare reform (Child Trends, 2000a; National Conference of State Legislators, 1999). First is the need to understand the specific components of an individual state’s welfare reform program. This is especially important given the diversity across states in the implementation of PRWORA and corresponding use of TANF funds. Specific components left up to the states include mandated work, time limits, and sanctions. The implementation of these components may impact the outcomes for families and children; for example, mandated work without childcare may lead to cases of child neglect. Also needed is an examination of the interaction between welfare reform—that is, the change from AFDC to TANF— and other social welfare programs such as Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Food Stamps Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Child Protective Services, and foster care, which also may be undergoing changes. Although efforts over the past two decades have sought to delink AFDC to other social welfare programs, in practice and for individual families these programs remain interwoven. The eligibility, availability, and accessibility of these supplemental services can impact family outcomes in conjunction with, or separate from, TANF enrollment, exit, and reentry. Understanding TANF’s impact on children requires thoughtful specification of the child well-being outcomes TANF might influence so that investigators can fashion data collection efforts to maximize measurement of the predicted impact. Research about child outcomes can guide questions about current implementation and future programming using the flexibility of TANF funds.
Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, along with colleagues at the federal and state levels participating in the Project on State-Level Child Outcomes, have offered a conceptual framework that organizes and clarifies the pathways through which welfare reform can impact children. This framework is displayed in Figure 10–1.