Window of opportunity for welfare reform.
Looking for good ways to spend your welfare money? Caseloads have dropped so fast that by the end of the year most states will have at least one-quarter of their welfare money left. Most of it - several billion dollars - belongs to the states, but sits in the federal treasury until states spend it.
It must be used to help poor families - it can't be used for prisons, bridges or schools. But states don't have to stick to their existing welfare programs. They can create new services to address long-standing problems such as learning disabilities and drug abuse or expand the number of families that get child care or transportation help.
Already states risk losing some of that money. Federal budgetmakers are even now looking at the money states are not spending and wondering if they gave them too much.
The speed at which families left the welfare rolls took most policymakers by surprise, so the challenges facing welfare reform are not the ones originally anticipated.
* Recipients who are still on welfare have greater barriers to finding jobs - substance abuse, domestic violence, low literacy and limited work experience.
* Those recipients who do get jobs often need help keeping them, and they need help getting better jobs that will help them support their families without welfare.
* Some rural areas and city centers are struggling to find enough jobs and adequate transportation so clients can get to available work.
* Working poor families and former recipients need help with child care, transportation and other services to avoid going on welfare.
* Many poor families cannot depend on child support because the absent fathers do not have jobs or earn too little to keep up with payments.
States are in a strong position to respond to these challenges. They have money - both federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grants and the state maintenance of effort (MOE) money that must be spent to draw down the full block grants. They also have flexibility to design new programs. Federal officials say that until final rules are announced, no spending will be disallowed if it results from a reasonable interpretation of the federal law.
"What we do now will determine in large part the long-term success of welfare reform," says Olivia Golden, assistant secretary in the federal administration for children and families. "Now is the time to think and act creatively."
Legislators can play an active role in developing new programs and making sure that everything possible is being done. Under the federal law, legislatures appropriate both state and federal welfare money. Several states have authorized specific initiatives in statutes. Other states use provisions in their appropriations bills.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR AGENCIES
Take a look at agency spending. In many states, agencies are lagging far behind legislative appropriations. They have been slow to implement new programs or spend money on designated services. Also examine agency efforts to make sure the legislature's intentions are carried through.
States are in uncharted territory, and they are looking for direction and ideas on how to invest money. There is no checklist to which states can refer - now more than ever they must tap into ideas from their colleagues and surrounding states. Several states have been innovative in designating how welfare money can be spent:
* Florida and South Carolina operate educational programs to reduce teen pregnancy.
* Washington gives incentives to caseworkers who help recipients find high wage jobs and stay employed.
* Maine and Wyoming run separate state programs to allow qualified recipients to go to college.
* New Mexico gives money to its commission on the status of women to develop services focused on women facing domestic violence, substance abuse and limited work experience.
* Wisconsin gives a state earned income tax credit to families who left welfare for work.
* Florida establishes college tuition funds for children of welfare families.
* New York and Arizona help low-income families buy cars.
* New Mexico gives a $100 monthly housing subsidy to families who do not receive federal assistance.
These ideas and the ones discussed in the following articles give states a sampling of ways to tackle the remaining challenges of welfare reform.
This collection of pieces was written by NCSL's welfare staff: Jack Tweedie, Sheri Steisel, Dana Reichert, Matthew O'Connor and Jenifer Vasquez.