Assessing Federalism: ANF and the Recent Evolution of American Social Policy Federalism
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This paper builds on a series of ANF publications that explored various aspects of social policy
federalism since 1996. It explores what ANF’s work can tell us about the evolution of federalism
within five major social programs during the nine years between 1997 and 2006, focusing on lessons
about federal-state relationships. It addresses Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF),
Food Stamps, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and child welfare.
The paper is the result of a review and synthesis of over 65 publications addressing state and
federal financing and/or programmatic arrangements in the major program areas, informed by interviews
with experts who participated in ANF research.
American social welfare programs have long been funded, regulated, and provided by a mix of federal,
state, and local government entities. The allocation of specific responsibilities among governmental
levels has periodically shifted in significant ways. Primary responsibility has also varied widely
by program area over time. How different program responsibilities are allocated matters because
it can affect the ability of government to effectively support low-income families and individuals
in need of assistance.
Decisions about federalism often seem abstract, involving debates about the relative advantages
of uniform national standards and benefit levels versus encouragement of state ingenuity and tailoring
to local conditions. Arguments are also often framed in broad philosophic or ideological terms.
At the end of the day, however, how critical social programs are structured between the federal
and state governments may significantly influence their strengths and limitations and how well
they can help poor and low-income people.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) was widely
seen as representing a key moment of renegotiation in the uneasy American system of social policy
federalism. It followed a period of widespread state experimentation with welfare and other programs
through federal S. 1115 waivers, and the nation seemed poised to pursue devolution on a sweeping
scale. The intense and extended debate around welfare reform also saw multiple legislative attempts
to block-grant Food Stamps and child nutrition programs, Medicaid, and federal child-welfare funding
programs. Although ultimately most of these efforts would be unsuccessful, the mid-1990s was marked
by a broad sense that the nation was on the cusp of a radical shift in American social policy federalism.
The Urban Institute’s Assessing the New Federalism (ANF) project was established to explore
and understand better what was unfolding in the aftermath of PRWORA, focusing on a set of key social
programs. ANF analyzed trends and policies that affect low-income families and explored the respective
roles of state and federal governments in financing, regulating, and administering essential social
programs from early 1997 on. It looked in particular at income and work supports, family supports,
and health programs for low-income families. Much of ANF’s work was rooted in the National
Survey of America’s Families (NSAF), which assessed the circumstances of more than 40,000
families (more than 100,000 children and nonelderly adults) in 1997, 1999, and 2002. ANF also entailed
a set of in-depth case studies of 13 states and 17 localities in 1997 and 1999 that focused on
human services and health systems and programs.
The 13 ANF states represented over half the low-income population nationwide receiving these services.
More than 450 publications, including policy briefs, discussion papers, book chapters, and reports,
resulted from ANF’s work between 1997 and 2005. This paper builds on a series of ANF publications
that explored various aspects of social policy federalism since 1996. They included a series of
child-welfare financing publications that addressed the funding decisions of the 50 states at five
points in time, a series of publications examining states’ health care budget decisions,
a book exploring federalism and health care, and a study of four intergovernmental social programs’ ability
to address the extreme stress created by Hurricane Katrina.
This paper explores what ANF’s work can tell us about the evolution of federalism within
five major social programs during the nine years between 1997 and 2006. It is one of several papers
distilling ANF’s lessons, including “Assessing the New Federalism: Eight Years Later”
(Golden 2005). That paper focused on lessons about policy and its impact on families; this paper
focuses on lessons about federal-state relationships. It addresses Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families (TANF), Food Stamps, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP),
and child welfare. One strength of the body of ANF research is that it covers a period of both strong
and constrained state budgets and national economic conditions, allowing some examination of changing
federal-state arrangements within these program areas as they evolved within a shifting economic
The paper is the result of a review and synthesis of more than 60 publications addressing state
and federal financing and/or programmatic arrangements in the major program areas, informed by
interviews with experts who participated in ANF research. The next section, “A Constrained
Devolution of Social Policy,” broadly explores the extent of devolution in these programs.
After that, “The Federal Government’s Ambivalent Approach to Establishing Program Standards
and Accountability Requirements” looks at the unsettled nature of the relative federalstate
roles in establishing program standards and accountability requirements, and “The Federal
Role in Program Financing” examines the shifts in federal and state financing within a changing
economic context. “A Widening of State Variation in Standards and Funding?” explores
the apparent widening of program variation at the state level since the mid-1990s. The final section
draws out a number of conclusions.
(End of excerpt. The complete report is available in PDF format.)