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Overview

Food assistance programs originated in the United States in the 1930s, with the New Deal's food stamp program, which was largely designed to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities to stabilize farm prices (Jones, 1994). Today, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers 15 food assistance programs. These programs feed one in six Americans, serving as a national nutrition safety net for millions of children, working families, and elderly.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, also known as the welfare reform act, introduced major changes to the U.S. social policy of public assistance benefits. The previous program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), provided cash assistance directly to children and their families based on need, income, resources, family size, and family structure. PRWORA replaced AFDC with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides assistance and work opportunities to needy families by granting states the federal funds and wide flexibility to develop and implement their own welfare programs. In addition, PRWORA also brought significant changes to the nation's food assistance programs. The act retained food stamps as a federal entitlement program, but reduced welfare benefits, restricted benefits to legal immigrants, and imposed work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents. With such major changes to these programs, the consequences for the current population of recipients and their children are expected to be extensive. To continue to meet the nutritional requirements of those in need will necessitate the identification, monitoring, and evaluation of the effects of these changes.



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1 Overview Food assistance programs originated in the United States in the 1930s, with the New Deal's food stamp program, which was largely designed to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities to stabilize farm prices (Jones, 1994). Today, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers 15 food assistance programs. These programs feed one in six Americans, serving as a national nutrition safety net for millions of children, working families, and elderly. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, also known as the welfare reform act, introduced major changes to the U.S. social policy of public assistance benefits. The previous program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), provided cash assistance directly to children and their families based on need, income, resources, family size, and family structure. PRWORA replaced AFDC with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides assistance and work opportunities to needy families by granting states the federal funds and wide flexibility to develop and implement their own welfare programs. In addition, PRWORA also brought significant changes to the nation's food assistance programs. The act retained food stamps as a federal entitlement program, but reduced welfare benefits, restricted benefits to legal immigrants, and imposed work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents. With such major changes to these programs, the consequences for the current population of recipients and their children are expected to be extensive. To continue to meet the nutritional requirements of those in need will necessitate the identification, monitoring, and evaluation of the effects of these changes.

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The fiscal year 1998 (FY1998) appropriations bill for USDA gave the Economic Research Service (ERS) responsibility for all research and evaluation studies on the USDA food assistance programs. ERS serves as USDA's economic research agency, conducting research and developing economic and statistical indicators for USDA in the areas of commercial agriculture, food and consumer economics, natural resources and environment, rural economy, and energy. The objective of the research on food assistance programs is to inform policymakers of the effectiveness of these programs and to better understand their impact on target populations and on the economy. The appropriations bill included $72.8 million for ERS, an increase of about one-third over its FY1997 appropriation of $54.3 million. The additional funding for ERS was earmarked for research and evaluation studies of USDA's food assistance programs. The funds have been used primarily to support extramural data collection and policy and program analysis. ERS is responsible for developing a plan for the specific allocation of these funds. Obtaining the data necessary to monitor and evaluate changes in food assistance programs under PRWORA poses substantial challenges. To obtain the information needed to evaluate the effects of welfare reform on food assistance programs, making possible a comprehensive and collaborative agenda for federally funded food assistance research, ERS asked the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National Research Council (NRC) for assistance in identifying priority areas of research and data collection for studies of food assistance programs and ways to further improve the evaluation of these programs. In collaboration with the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the NRC and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and with the Food and Nutrition Board of the IOM, CNSTAT convened a one-and-a-half-day workshop on February 12-13, 1998, to discuss evaluation of food assistance programs in an era of welfare reform. Participants were drawn from the areas of program evaluation, policy analysis, survey methods, food assistance, nutrition, child nutrition and child development, outcome measurement, and state social service programs. Staff from the sponsoring agency and from other relevant federal agencies also attended. The agenda and list of participants are provided in the Appendix. The workshop had five main goals: 1.   to provide overviews of research conducted for policy analysis of food assistance programs, 2.   to review the state of the art in program evaluation methods, 3.   to review data sources relevant to the needed policy analysis and research, 4.   to identify innovative directions for research, and 5.   to identify issues for further study through commissioned research or an NRC panel.

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The following themes emerged during the workshop discussions: A comprehensive research framework for food assistance programs should encompass the diverse domains affected by the programs, particularly nutritional status, economic security, and food security—which means access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1997b)—and individual and family health and well-being. The dynamics of program participation can provide insight into the composition of caseloads, changes over time, and the reasons for those changes and is an important area of study. Devolution of program authority to the states makes it increasingly important to use administrative data from state records, taking information from such sources as TANF, the Food Stamp Program, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and tax reporting systems. Linking these data with national surveys can provide useful information for research purposes. In view of the current redesign and alterations of public assistance systems, the study of interactions among programs is of particular importance, both between welfare reform and food assistance programs and among the various food assistance programs themselves. Evaluation research on food assistance and other welfare programs should incorporate a mixture of methodologies, including randomized trials, observational studies, and implementation research; and longitudinal data systems are needed to provide the data necessary for analyses of welfare reform impacts, dynamics of program participation, and program evaluation research.