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Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Framework and Review of Current Work
needs for data from surveys and administrative records at both the federal and state levels, as well as general issues of data quality for studies of the low-income and welfare populations. The panel began its work in fall 1998 and will issue a final report in late 2000.
This interim report presents the panel's initial conclusions and recommendations. Given the short length of time the panel has been in existence, this report necessarily treats many issues in much less depth than they will be treated in the final report. The report has an immediate short-run goal of providing DHHS-ASPE with recommendations regarding some of its current projects, particularly those recently funded to study ''welfare leavers''—former welfare recipients who have left the welfare rolls as part of the recent decline in welfare caseloads.
Many of the conclusions reached by the panel in its initial examination of welfare reform evaluations under way around the country concern the data bases used for evaluation. The devolution of program responsibility begun under the pre-PRWORA waivers and institutionalized by PRWORA has led to wide variation in programs across states and even within states. While this proliferation of programs has some advantages from an evaluation standpoint—it makes use of federalism as a laboratory for testing (as it has been so often used in American history)—it imposes the need for a significant data infrastructure. Such an infrastructure should include national-level data sets that can capture state variations in policies and outcomes; state-level data sets that are sufficiently detailed and standardized to permit comparisons of welfare policies as implemented and family and individual outcomes (employment, income, etc); and state-level data sets for evaluating the effects of welfare reform in each state, even if not intended for comparison with other states. The panel has concluded that such a data infrastructure is not in place at the current time.
Gaps in the data infrastructure for determining the effects of welfare reform are numerous. The new welfare reform environment imposes great strain on traditional national-level survey data sets, both those supported by the Census Bureau as well as those supported by other federal agencies. These data sets usually have relatively small sample sizes for the welfare-relevant population, and they often do not have all the major variables needed to comprehensively assess the effects of welfare reform. The Survey of Program Dynamics, a national-level panel data set intended to remedy some of these defects, has so far not been as successful as expected. A further difficulty straining the usefulness of national-level surveys is the relative lack of information on the policies that states have actually adopted since 1996. The 1996 legislation not only devolved operational and design responsibility to the states, it also removed many requirements for state reporting to the federal government on their policies. Federal data-gathering activities on the details of state policies have been slow and hap-