Thursday, May 28, 2009

Prairie dogging in DC

I'm in Washington for the week attending a yearly research conference sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). The conference covers programs, mostly anti-poverty and family assistance programs, funded by the ACF. There are also presentations on other promising programs, demonstrations, and social experiments.

A striking feature of the conference is the vast array of programs and services (and the accompanying alphabet soup of program acronyms). In one respect this is fascinating. I get to "prairie dog" for a week, poking my head out of the tunnel of my own research on food assistance and welfare programs and getting to hear about other initiatives.

In another respect, you have to wonder how potential clients navigate all of these various programs. The programs address many related issues but typically are run by separate agencies within states and communities. Depending on the state, one program could be in a health department, another in a workforce or employment security agency, others in social service departments, and yet others in agencies for children.

Having many programs means that services can be tailored toward specific issues, problems, and populations. It also means that program staff can become highly knowledgeable about these issues. It is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach.

The problem, of course, is the services become fragmented and can be hard to find. Despite being a reasonably well-informed researcher, I have trouble keeping track of all of the programs. I can only imagine what a new client would face in trying to determine what services might be helpful or available. Many states and localities do operate "one-stop" centers to help with some groups of services; still the choices are bewildering.

Beyond this, there are inefficiencies associated with potential duplication of services. There are also inefficiencies associated with the administrative overhead for each of the programs.

In many of the presentations at the conference, we've heard about the dire fiscal situation. States are facing very tough budget conditions and paring (chopping?, gutting?) expenditures. The federal government is spending huge sums and running enormous deficits. However, relatively little of this money is being directed toward social services, and the federal government will have to close its spending gap going forward, putting pressure on social programs.

One thing that has not been discussed is the possible consolidation and simplification of programs. Given the budget exigencies and the existence of so many programs, it may be time to put consolidation on the agenda.