With the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, the United States embarked on a major social experiment with its social welfare and safety net programs for the poor. The most far-reaching reform of the cash welfare system for single mothers since 1935, PRWORA replaced the federal entitlement program for low-income families and children (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC) with a state-administered block grant program, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Determining the consequences of this experiment is of great importance. Has welfare reform “worked?” What were the effects of the reforms on families and individuals? What reforms worked for whom and why? In looking toward the development of new policies to aid low-income families, which elements of the new welfare system need to be changed and which left as is?
For these fundamental questions to be answered adequately, two issues need to be addressed. First, how should one go about answering these questions— what methods should be used and what types of studies should be conducted in order to determine the effects of welfare reform? Second, what types of data are needed to measure the effects of welfare reform? Are federal and state data sources currently available sufficient to carry out needed evaluations, and, if not, what investments in that infrastructure are needed?
To answer these questions, the Committee on National Statistics of the National Research Council formed the Panel on Data and Methods for Measuring the Effects of Changes in Social Welfare Programs. This panel is sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) through a congressional appropriation. The charge to the panel is to review methods and data needed to evaluate the outcomes of changes in social welfare programs on families and individuals. The panel is specifically charged with assisting the department in (1) identifying how best to measure and track program eligibility, participation, child well-being, and other outcomes; (2) evaluating data, research designs, and methods for the study of welfare reform outcomes; and (3) identifying needed areas and topics of research. In doing so, the panel was asked to consider alternative federal and state data sources, the limitations of currently available data, appropriate evaluation designs and methods for analysis, and findings from previous research and evaluation. The panel is also specifically charged with reviewing data needs and methods for tracking and assessing the effects of program changes on families who stop receiving cash assistance—i.e., welfare leavers. (Author abstract)