Institute Forum

Federal-State Social Programs: A Delicate Balance is Needed July 14, 2009

Federal-State Social Programs: A Delicate Balance is Needed

When social programs require the collaboration of state and federal governments, states should be laboratories of creativity, with the federal government serving as a coordinator of research and information on best practices, according to an official in the Obama administration.

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David Hansell, principal deputy assistant secretary for the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF), said the young administration has an opportunity to make that happen.

He made his comments at the 49th National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics conference, taking place in Albany, N.Y., and co-hosted by the Rockefeller Institute of Government and New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). Hansell was part of a panel discussion entitled, "A New Federal-State Partnership for Social Programs?"

Hansell was joined by the former ACF assistant secretary for children and families under George W. Bush, Wade Horn, now a public-sector consultant with Deloitte Consulting, as well as Russell Sykes of OTDA, Mark Greenberg of Georgetown University, Irene Lurie of the Rockefeller Institute, and moderator Michael Wiseman of George Washington University.

One area of consensus appeared to be the idea that partnerships between federal and state government must strike the right balance between federal oversight and states' ability to have flexibility in their programs.

Some see the proper role of federal government, in partnering with states, is to be what Horn called “sort of an ATM for states’ budgets” — a collector and re-distributor of taxes. But Horn said the federal government also has an important oversight function to play, in ensuring that the money appropriated by Congress is used as intended, and that expenditures are having desired results at the individual level.

He acknowledged, however, a tension between federal oversight that is legitimate versus that which stifles innovation.

Greenberg referred to the predecessor to the current welfare system, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, as an example of a poor federal-state partnership. Calling it "incoherent federalism," he said it was laden with rules that existed for no apparent reason. The 1996 welfare reform act, which produced the current Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash-assistance program, brought some positive lessons, said Sykes, especially an understanding of the variation among states and the need for flexibility in program structure.

The 2005 reauthorization of TANF, part of the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), wrongly returned the focus back to "bean-counting" by the states to meet federal requirements, Sykes said. The Obama administration should lessen the restrictions on the states that DRA imposed, and get back to a focus on outcomes, as in the 1996 law, he added.

Lurie provided a history of one TANF measure — the participation rate — and said it was never intended to be a permanent requirement. The federal government had intended to develop measures based more on outcomes rather than participation, but never did, she said.

“The participation rate has become institutionalized but it was never intended to be a permanent feature of the law.”

Horn expressed confidence that the Obama administration — which represents not only a change of party, but "a generational change," he said — would make improvements in the use of technology to operate more effective and efficient programs. Increased technology use has been hampered in the past by outdated funding methods, he said.

“Why do we make states jump through hoops in order to use technology that make it easier for consumers?” Horn asked.



The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.