NEWS RELEASE, 10/23/96
New system for tracking welfare millions is daunting but doable, UC Berkeley researchers tell National Academy of Sciences
Berkeley -- 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 on Friday, Oct 25, the paper by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, 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," UC Berkeley 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 (UC DATA) 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 much more complex than the one that now tracks the work histories of all U.S. citizens.
It will be about 10 times the size of the data collection 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 UC DATA 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, adequacy of housing, adequacy of health care, child abuse and neglect and movement to foster care or adoption.
Brady also predicted that designing the systems will be costly enough that political battles will break out at the local and state levels over how much money to spend on the data collection system, compared to actually helping people on welfare.
In regard to privacy issues that have been raised, Brady said he believes that ways can be found to hide the identities of individuals in the new system. "It won't be easy, but it can be done," he said.
More problematic is the question of what this kind of tracking means to American life, said Brady. "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 UC 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."
Henry Brady, professor of political science and public policy at UC Berkeley, can be reached Thursday morning (Oct. 24) until 11 a.m. at (510) 642-3008. On Thursday evening, he can be reached at the St. James Hotel in Washington D.C., (202) 457-0500.
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