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Lisa Plimpton of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) reports on the work that CLASP is doing to document state policies on welfare reform.

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) undertook the State Policy Documentation Project (SPDP) in 1997 to document and analyze policy choices made by the states in their TANF cash assistance, food stamp, and Medicaid programs. Enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, particularly the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, significantly altered the relationship between the federal and state governments in providing assistance to needy families. The federal legislation both offers substantial new discretion for states and imposes new requirements. The goal of the SPDP is to provide a detailed and accurate source of state policy information on these programs for advocates, policymakers, and researchers. The project will collect and disseminate data on written policy (statute, regulation, and policy manual), rather than on how policy is implemented or its impacts.

In the project’s first year, staff and CLASP and CBPP developed five surveys, three on TANF policies, one on Medicaid, and one on food stamps, with a total of more than 1,000 questions. Most questions were framed with multiple choice or yes/no answers to facilitate comparison of policies across states. The surveys also include open-ended questions to allow for full explanation of state policies. The survey instruments contain substantial explanatory text to ensure that all respondents fully understand the questions. The SPDP provides more detail than other sources of information on state policy choices, because initial“threshold” questions are followed by a series of follow-up questions. For example, in addition to listing the circumstances under which a state extends cash assistance to families that have reached a time limit, the SPDP survey asks whether the duration and renewability of extensions vary by circumstance, and if there are any circumstances under which families can be disqualified from receiving extensions.

The topics in the TANF survey include application issues, categorical eligibility, financial eligibility, time limits, work activities and requirements, sanction provisions, child care, child support, program administration, entitlement, housing assistance interaction, and behavioral requirements. There is a separate survey on TANF policies with implications for reproductive health and teen parents, such as family caps, minor living arrangements, rules, family planning, abstinence education, and teen school and training requirements.

The food stamps survey topics include application procedures, financial and categorical eligibility, immigrants’ eligibility, sanctions for noncompliance with work requirements, collections of over issuances, the three-month time limit, and employment and training activities. The Medicaid survey topics are the new eligibility category for families with children, family composition rules, transitional Medicaid assistance, sanctions, time limits, effects of TANF procedures on Medicaid, Medicaid for SSI children, and Medicaid for immigrants.

The volume of data SPDP is collecting is large. For example, the survey section on TANF applications contains subsections on policies on availability and processing of applications; the extent to which Medicaid, food stamps, and other benefits’ applications are linked with cash assistance applications; requirements imposed on applicants; rules on personal responsibility contracts and employability plans applicants must sign; programs that divert applicants from cash assistance with onetime payments or other services; and the availability of emergency assistance.

In order to collect the data, SPDP contracted with “reporters,” technically and substantively proficient policy analysts, in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Each reporter completes the surveys; SPDP then compiles and cleans the data, and sends reports on the survey answers to state officials at the TANF, Medicaid, or food stamps agency for confirmation. The final step is to resolve any discrepancies in interpretation of written policy between the survey respondents and state officials. In these cases, the written policy is the final authority. SPDP data are stored in databases, and an interface was developed that allows reporters to enter survey answers directly into the databases via the Internet.

Information on these state policies is in high demand. The scope of issue areas covered and the level of the detail of the information from the SPDP surveys are not available from other sources. For example, state-level advocates and policymakers learn about innovative policies being proposed and implemented in other states and are able to see how their policies compare to those across the nation. Researchers evaluating welfare related programs, particularly those looking at sites in different states, will use the policy information to inform their evaluation findings. Members of the media at both the national and state levels frequently request information from SPDP for stories on welfare reform policy trends. To further disseminate its information, SPDP is developing a Web site. SPDP reports will be advertised as they become available through networks of state reporters and partner organizations, through mailings to state officials, and by posting notices to electronic listservs for state and federal policymakers, researchers, policy analysts, and advocates.

SPDP is designing database reports for individual state summaries of the policies in each of the survey areas; state reports will be posted to the Web site individually as data are verified. Eventually, 50-state tables will be produced to allow for comparison of policies around the country. While making the data available will allow others to do state-specific, regional, and national analyses, SPDP staff will write and distribute issue-specific summaries based on the full range of issues covered by the five surveys.

Lisa Plimpton
Research Associate

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