States Spotty on Welfare-Tracking Capability

Only seven states keep files comprehensive enough to track former welfare recipients who have moved off government rosters, according to an audit prepared recently by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

GAO had a tough time complying with a request from a Senate finance subcommittee, which had asked the congressional watchdog agency to "report on what is now known about families no longer receiving welfare."

That information is key because states must enforce a new five-year "lifetime" family limit on federal assistance to receive shares of the more than $16.8 billion doled out each year through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program.

Because the federal government does mandate that states keep such information in any uniform way, GAO had to wade through reports that states completed primarily for their own internal purposes. Seventeen states keep published reports with some information about families no longer relying on public assistance programs. But GAO could only get all the information it needed from seven of the 17.

In the end, even those seven fell short by GAO's standards. "None of the studies reported on changes in family composition resulting from marriage or pregnancy after leaving welfare. Regarding measures of well-being, six states' studies included data on homelessness or separation of children from their parents and reported no indication of increased incidence of these outcomes at the time of follow-up," says the report, which is available at www.gao.gov/new.items/he99048.pdf.

GAO also reported that efforts were under way to improve the quality of state and federal data. Most states are planning ways to study former welfare families. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded 14 projects to track families no longer using welfare benefits.

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