by Patricia McBroom
The task of setting up a data system to track millions of welfare recipients for 10 to 20 years is "daunting" but it can be done, according to the first analysis of the job, commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences.
Presented to the academy Friday, Oct. 25, the paper by Berkeley researchers provides the first evidence that data collection technology is advanced enough to provide the reams of new information required by the recently passed federal welfare bill, the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996."
"I think we can do it in California," Professor Henry Brady said. "But setting up this system will be a daunting and expensive task."
California has 15 percent of the country's welfare recipients, more than any other state. Research data on them is maintained at the University of California Data Archive and Technical Assistance program headed by Brady.
In speaking to a meeting of the NAS Committee on National Statistics, which requested the report, Brady will compare the task ahead to establishing a whole new social security system ‚ smaller but more complex than the one that now tracks the work histories of U.S. citizens.
It will be about 10 times the size of the data system now used to monitor aid to poor families, Brady estimated.
"The longest we've ever tracked people is for about a year. Now we need to track them for about 10 to 20 years," he said.
Brady emphasized that care must be taken in the kind of data collected, if this "monumental" tracking system is to result in an improved welfare system.
"We have a tremendous opportunity here to collect information on how the welfare system performs," said Brady. "Do people actually get jobs? Are children really helped?"
He added that the welfare bill "is very concerned with regulating the behavior of adults, but it does not do much to track the needs of children."
The report shows that while performance standards in the law call for data collection on the educational attainment and criminal behavior of welfare children, they do not ask for information on such factors as nutrition, housing, health care, child abuse/neglect and movement to foster care or adoption.
Brady also predicted that designing the systems will be costly enough that local and state political battles will break out over how much money to spend on the data system, compared to what to spend actually helping people on welfare.
Brady said he believes ways can be found to hide the identities of individuals. More problematic is the question of what tracking means to American life, he said. "We've grown up with the idea of moving West and starting a new life. With these new systems in place, it will be very hard to get away from your past."
The Berkeley report does not evaluate the data collection system to be set up for child support, but Brady described that subject as "ethically very difficult."
"Everyone agrees that fathers ought to support their children, but we have to be aware that these tracking systems are extremely extensive and worrisome," said Brady. "There are questions here of how we balance freedom and responsibility."