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Keeping a legislative eye on welfare reform.

Legislators want to have more of a hand in shaping welfare policy than simply appropriating the funds. Here's how a few states are doing it.

In the past few years, most state legislatures have adopted sweeping reforms of their welfare programs aimed at creating a work-based system. They took a more assertive role with governors and welfare agencies to transform these programs. In a number of states, legislatures raised concerns about the effects of reform on poor children and families and the critical importance of providing adequate support services for those trying to find work.

They insisted on establishing programs to create jobs, ensure adequate child care for parents required to work, continue basic education programs for those without high school diplomas, and provide transportation to get recipients to work and their children to child care. At the same time, they supported work requirements and time limits to motivate people to work.

In short, state legislatures have played a critical role in setting up a new welfare system that both requires recipients to work and provides the necessary preparation and support that give people a better chance to succeed.

Legislators recognize that welfare reform is a work-in-progress. States are still figuring out how to get recipients into adequate jobs so they can support their families. Although the executive has the primary responsibility for welfare reform, state legislatures still have a critical role. Their lawmaking, appropriation and appointment powers remain critical to the success of the programs. Legislatures need to develop a way to monitor programs. Legislators concerned with the effects of work requirements and time limits are struggling with how to keep tabs on the recent changes and ensure that parents have incentive and opportunity to work and that poor children are adequately protected.


Florida's approach, the Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency (WAGES) program, has provided a model for other states. From the beginning, Florida legislators recognized the importance of continuing involvement. In the words of Senate President Toni Jennings, a primary sponsor of the legislation, "We were all over it. We recognized that reforming welfare would be a continuing responsibility. We set up the WAGES board to direct implementation, but we planned on legislators and staff remaining directly involved. We set up interim projects to deal with critical issues so that we could stay informed and make changes when needed."

The WAGES board acts as an agent for the state and its citizens in overseeing welfare reform and ensuring coordination and accountability among the state agencies involved. It consists of the heads of the six state agencies directly involved - education, health and rehabilitative services (with responsibility for welfare), labor and employment security, community affairs, commerce, and the Enterprise Florida Jobs and Education Partnership - and nine members appointed by the governor, including six chosen from a list of nominees submitted by the speaker and the Senate president.

The legislation ensures that WAGES policy will be responsive to the concerns of employers by requiring that six of the appointed members work in the private sector and five have management experience. State agencies submit plans to the board, which then develops a statewide plan that goes to the governor, the Senate president and the speaker. The board updates the plan annually, focusing on immediate questions and how to meet the goals of welfare reform over the next three years.

Florida's Legislature also plays a direct role through interim projects on welfare reform. In addition to general oversight of their projects evaluate employer incentives to create jobs for welfare recipients and devise ways to meet transportation needs. The interim projects provide continuing involvement by the Legislature in reform.


Arkansas welfare reform legislation also gave the legislature a continuing role. In creating the new Transitional Employment Assistance (TEA) program, Arkansas legislators sought to maintain an active policymaking role, despite the fact that they meet in session only four months every two years. They developed a number of approaches.

First, they borrowed the idea of an advisory council from Florida. Unlike the Florida WAGES board, the Arkansas TEA Council has an advisory role, not direct authority over implementation. In addition to the heads of all the state agencies involved in welfare reform, six members are directly appointed by the chairs of the Senate and House public health and welfare committees. The council gives the Legislature and the people of Arkansas a continuing voice in the development and implementation of the new welfare program, says Senator Jay Bradford. "We will not simply leave it up to the governor and the Department of Human Services. We want to make sure poor families are protected."

Second, the law requires the welfare agency to submit a plan and detailed quarterly progress reports to the chairs of the legislative committees so that they will have the information to make effective decisions about program changes and appropriations.

Third, the law requires an independent evaluation of the program with biannual reports to the Legislature and governor. The law specifies nine items to be evaluated, including the effects of the TEA program on recipients and their children, the effectiveness of job training and the effectiveness of incentives designed to promote business participation.

Finally, legislators wanted to ensure that recipients leaving the program because of time limits or the new requirements would still be able to care adequately for their children. Borrowing from projects in Iowa and Tennessee, they directed the welfare agency and the Department of Health to propose a program of home visits to monitor families who leave assistance.

Utah took a different approach. Legislators wanted to make sure the agency emphasized job placement. They set a statutory goal of placing 4,000 recipients a year in full-time jobs for three consecutive years. They also required a detailed evaluation of the agency's progress to be submitted to the legislature every year.


Legislators intend to remain involved in welfare reform. If they are to continue to play an effective role, however, they need the ability to monitor implementation and remain active in policymaking.

Three legislative capacities need to be developed.

* Legislatures need to collaborate with governor's and agency staff, even in cases where they disagree on policy issues. Legislators must rely on the executive to implement welfare changes. They also depend primarily on the agency for information about how the program is working and what changes are needed. While legislators want to hold the executive accountable, they must find ways to work with these officials to accomplish the ends of welfare reform. The councils in Florida and Arkansas and interim committees in a number of states are examples of a means to accomplish this purpose.

* Legislators need information about the operation of the program and access to decision making about how it should run. Several legislatures have required detailed reports about how the program is working. In many states, however, legislators are reluctant to rely wholly on agencies and the executive for information. They want an independent source that has no stake in certain outcomes. Using independent evaluations with reports directly to the legislature helps ensure that they get adequate and unbiased information.

* Legislators need expert assistance in identifying critical indicators of success. Simply put, they want to know how to recognize if the reforms are succeeding or whether they need changes. Some are reaching out directly to welfare advisers. In Arkansas, they will use an independent evaluator to get information and to help them interpret that data and identify key indicators of success or difficulties.

State legislatures have laid the foundations for transforming welfare. Legislators are not finished with welfare reform, however, because many questions remain to be answered. Can welfare bureaucracies remake themselves into work counselors? Can welfare recipients take advantage of the new work opportunities and can they stay in their jobs despite the many barriers facing them? What will happen to caseloads and work opportunities when the economy declines?

As we get more experience with welfare reform, the answers to these questions will pose new policy issues for legislators.


State legislatures recognize the importance of ensuring a continuing legislative role. They have adopted various requirements to shape implementation:

1. Detailed statutory basis for welfare changes with specific goals.

2. Specific, mandatory reports to the legislature.

3. Legislative-executive policy councils.

4. Interim committees overseeing welfare.

5. Independent evaluations with reports to legislature.

6. Budget hearings.

Jack Tweedie is NCSL's expert on state welfare policies.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Tweedie, Jack
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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