Family Self-Sufficiency Research Consortium Steering Committee

OPRE Family Self-Sufficiency Research Consortium Steering Committee Meeting
February 18, 2014
Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg

Thank you all for coming today. I want to begin with some pretty brief remarks, because I’m looking forward to getting started in the opening session. But I want to start with some quick background about ACF, our priorities, and how it fits with this effort.

First, as you know, ACF has a strong research and evaluation effort, coordinated and implemented by our Office of Planning Research and Evaluation. But, most of what we do at ACF involves our responsibilities for the federal role in operating a wide range of programs principally affecting low income children, families, and communities.

Our program responsibilities include Head Start and Child Care, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, child support, the child welfare system, refugee resettlement, the unaccompanied alien children program, the Social Services Block Grant, the Community Services Block Grant, runaway and homeless youth programs, domestic violence program, marriage and fatherhood programs, the Assets for Independence Program, Low Income Home Emergency Assistance, and more.

In most cases, the programs themselves are run by state or local governments or grantees such as Head Start or community action agencies, and our responsibilities are to ensure that programs operate in compliance with federal law. And, we seek to spur innovation and improved performance through policy guidance, technical assistance, discretionary grants, our research agenda, and what’s sometimes referred to as the bully pulpit --- our ability to talk about and signal what’s important to pay attention to and why.

In practical terms, this means that we’re always trying to draw distinctions between what needs to be researched and evaluated, when do we know enough or think we know enough to point to promising practices or importance new directions to encourage by states and other grantees, when do we want to encourage experimentation, and when we have the authority, when should we be requiring something.

And, while we have statutory compliance responsibilities for this lengthy list of programs, we try to not operate in silos, but rather to look at issues, challenges, and opportunities across the range of programs under ACF jurisdiction. So, that’s one reason why it’s encouraging and exciting to see research proposals that expressly seek to explore intersections across TANF, child care, child welfare, and other programs.
So, in the next few minutes, I want to say a bit about our TANF-specific interests, and then our self-sufficiency interests more generally, and then I’m interested in hearing from you all.

For TANF, I’ll first say a few things about substance, and then move to research. First, on substance, we want a program that is accessible to those in need and effective in linking them with sustainable employment. There are significant concerns about TANF’s current performance on both dimensions. We’re very aware of the data indicating the sharp decline in the share of eligible families and share of poor children receiving TANF assistance. At the same time, the best available data suggests that the employment rate for single mothers improved dramatically during the 1990s, but the progress ended more than a dozen years ago and since then has been flat or declined.

At the same time, much of the best research about TANF performance and impacts is at least a dozen years old. In the period immediately after TANF was enacted, when caseloads were falling and states had billions in freed-up funds, we saw a significant commitment of state agencies to research, particularly concerning TANF leavers and characteristics of stayers. But, over time, as TANF caseloads continued to decline, TANF largely fell off the political and foundation radar screen, and states saw other opportunities to use the funds for other state priorities, research funding dried up too, and for many areas of inquiry, our best information really is quite old. That doesn’t imply that we should pick up where we left off --- it’s at best unclear how much there is to be learned from new leavers studies or further research into characteristics of current recipients, but it does suggest the importance of stepping back and considering what we do and don’t know about the current program and performance and where’s most important to commit research resources with a particular focus on how this work can spur improved approaches to assisting those in need and improving effectiveness in connecting families with employment.

As to data, the federal government faces some significant constraints because the statute bars us from regulating or enforcing except where specifically authorized. This means we can’t simply require improved data reporting except where expressly authorized, and we don’t have the authority to require universe reporting. We are doing some important revamping of financial data reporting to have a clearer picture of where the money is going, and we’ve tried to improve the timeliness of reporting the data that is collected. But, we’re mindful that we’ve got no data collection about why most applications for assistance are denied, and that most case closures are for wholly uninformative reasons --- voluntary closure, state policy, failure to cooperate, and other. We’re mindful that we collect no data about program outcomes as opposed to how many
hours people participate in activities. And we’re mindful that while we produce 72 tables each year of characteristics and financial data, the data is of uncertain accuracy and minimal policy utility.

But, while we’re constrained, states are not. They can choose to collect data beyond what’s required; they can make use of universe data for longitudinal analysis; they can cross-tabulate characteristics to get improved insights, and we hope the data center will help them to use their data far more effectively. Moreoever, we think that over time, the greatest insights will come from improved linkages between TANF, and SNAP, and child care, and child welfare, and Medicaid and other data sources, and we hope the data center will help states develop capacity to implement such linked data initiatives.

As to self sufficiency more broadly, let me first emphasize that we’re interested in everything you all have proposed to do, and that’s of course, why we’re here. I won’t purport to list all of our interests except to note that as you might expect, anything that can generate new insights and perspectives as to strategies for addressing poverty, mobility, opportunity, inequality, labor market success, child well-being, and family-strengthening approaches may be of interest. And, I want to particularly flag that we, of course, will be interested in how implementation of the ACA affects poor families and poor communities; we’re actively involved in efforts to end family and youth homelessness, and have been struck by significant gaps in that research. And, In the last several years, we’ve been very aware of, and in some cases very involved in the set of discussions about trauma affecting children and adults, and the roles of trauma-informed care; the discussions about the impacts of toxic stress and the potential for strengthening the capacities of adults to prevent it; the discussions about the importance of conceptualizing programs as two-generational, and the implications for program design; discussions of parenting, relationship education, the roles of non-cognitive skills, and, of course, the work around executive function. So, we’d welcome further work that helps us to consider how these bodies of work do and don’t fit together, and what are the implications for programs, practices, technical assistance, and our research agenda.

So, thank you for being here and working with us; we greatly look forward to this discussion and to your efforts.

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