Contact: Kim Brockway
(212) 854-2419
[email protected]
For immediate release
June 23, 1998
Note to Editors: For a copy of the report "Big Cities in the Welfare Transition,"
call Kim Brockway, (212) 854-2419.

Federal Welfare Reform Imperils Big Cities, Says Study from Columbia's Social Work School


Big cities are at a serious disadvantage under federal welfare reform and the resulting new, unbalanced federalism, according to a new study by Alfred J. Kahn and Sheila B. Kamerman of Columbia University's School of Social Work.

The study found that, of the six big cities surveyed, no two were alike in coping with the demands of the new federal policies and revised programs. In every case, the state defined a city's mission and its taxing capacities. Some cities had a say in state actions and implementation plans; others did not. Where city and county concerns were ignored by states, efforts at job creation, child care provision, and mobilization of community supports faced major blockage or lack of resources.

Funded by the Ford Foundation, the report, "Big Cities in the Welfare Transition" consists of six case studies (New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles County) compiled by a roundtable of city-hall personnel, social welfare and health professionals, community development and urban experts, representatives of major national intergovernmental associations and others. The study was conducted during a two-year period following the 1996 enactment of legislation loosely defined as "welfare reform."

Unless states deliberately act with the interests of big cities in mind and avoid passing on unfunded mandates, welfare reform will have reinforced a system that may breed further hopelessness, according to the authors. Although the federal legislation has been justified as providing a route for the welfare-poor to autonomy, the reality may be the reverse.

Acknowledging that the cities differed in many respects (economies, populations, political environments, etc.), the authors add that the nature of a city's home rule and its state-defined mission are also significant. They found that:

  • Among the cities surveyed, only New York City directly administers the major federal welfare programs (AFDC and now TANF, Medicaid and Food Stamps), giving it the advantage and burden of the widest range of direct responsibilities for services. Boston, on the other hand, has a state-administered and state-delivered system for major income maintenance and Medicaid programs.
  • The cities seem to line up in a continuum, with those at one end, such as New York, adapting the new federal principles literally and trying to do little more than implement them. Those at the other end -- Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore -- try to use the new law and its possible loopholes to bring sound policies to their population or at least to avoid hurting them.
  • Examples of effective city administrations include human services cabinets in Philadelphia and Baltimore; state child care advocacy groups in L.A. County and Massachusetts; research consortiums in L.A. County and Cleveland, and a variety of welfare coalitions in Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio.
  • Important variables were found to include: city-state political configurations; personal relationships between a governor and mayor; the ability of city advocates to influence their delegations to the state legislatures, and a state's shifting economic situation.
  • Also key was a city's capacity for and traditions of public-private and multi-department, multi-program coordination and planning; Baltimore and Philadelphia, in particular, were cited for their strengths in these areas.

"It takes a full mobilization of public and private sectors in a coordinated effort to give welfare recipients a new start," said Kahn and Kamerman. ""If all of these variables do not fall just right, children and parents suffer in ways which most voters do not intend."

The report urges major efforts to establish new protections for cities in the "newest" federalism that has resulted from changed policies and the devolution of public assistance programs from Washington to the states in the new legislation. The authors urge

  • protections for cities in terms of how states do or do not mandate responsibilities for which the cities are not supplied funding streams;
  • mandated city inclusion in state welfare planning when federal funds are involved;
  • a fair sharing of child care resources and funds for job creation when federal funds are involved, and
  • mandated state sharing of data about caseloads, clients, and programs for cities when service delivery is state controlled.

The principle, according to the authors, would appear clear. The broad, standard welfare programs, whether or not technically individual entitlements -- including TANF, Medicaid, food stamps, and foster care entitlements under the Social Security Act -- are state responsibilities, need statewide equity, depend on the state tax base and require state relationships with Washington. Localities cannot survive the economic competition within their own states or with localities in neighboring states if their own tax base must support a heavy burden of redistribution.

On the other hand, what has been learned about service delivery in the human services makes a very strong case for full devolution of responsibility for the delivery of child and family services, health, mental health, juvenile justice and housing services to the local level. All of these are services requiring specific sensitivity to the characteristics of potential clients/consumers and the backing of social support by community institutions. The state should retain a regulatory and inspection role.

Alfred J. Kahn is professor emeritus and special lecturer, and Sheila B. Kamerman is the Compton Foundation Centennial Professor for the Prevention of Children's and Youth Problems, at Columbia's School of Social Work. They are co-directors of the Cross-National Studies Research Program, a research center that conducts studies of social policies and programs in advanced industrialized nations.

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