June 2001

From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Study: State's social service community meeting challenges of welfare reform

CHAPEL HILL -- New research on welfare reform reveals dramatic, largely positive changes in social services across the state, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill investigators say. Reduced caseloads for county employees and increased workforce participation by welfare recipients were among the chief results.

County social services communities responded in innovative ways to the challenges of welfare reform legislation passed by the General Assembly in 1997, surveys of county officials show. The surveys, carried out over the past several months, were completed under the direction of Drs. Philip Cooke and Deil Wright of UNC-Chapel Hill as part of a larger research project at 11 UNC campuses. More than 400 county officials responded and registered their opinions on welfare reform.

Funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and UNC, the project tracked county responses to legislation that decentralized some policy-making power from the state to the counties, Cooke and Diehl said.

The legislation called for transformation of county social service departments, and major emphasis was placed on helping welfare recipients get full- or part-time work, the two said. One result was that N.C. social service communities redirected their efforts from tracking clients' income eligibility to helping clients find jobs and achieve self-sufficiency.

Survey reponses from the county officials supported the change in focus, the researchers found. On average, officials ranked the importance of "securing workforce participation by clients in their county" extremely high -- 8.5 on a 10-point scale. Equally significant, they ranked achievement of this goal at 7.4 on the same scale.

"These high `batting averages' of .850 and .740 are impressive given the rapidity and complexity of the welfare reforms," said Wright, professor of political science. "County commissioners and county managers devoted considerable attention to welfare in their respective communities. It clearly and consistently got their attention."

The general response of the North Carolina social services community has been one of innovation and openness, the professors said. Surveys indicated that county commissioners and managers and social service board chairs looked to social services directors as the chief source of new ideas in response to legislative changes. Respondents pointed to the social services directors as highly influential over welfare reform decisions from 1998-2000. Directors' importance was ranked the highest of all those involved -- 8.7 on the 10-point scale.

"While the response has not been uniform across all counties, the study found that county social service departments reached out to broader communities and attempted to engage previously silent voices," Wright said. "New stakeholders participated in responding to citizens in economic need."

Case studies of 21 North Carolina counties indicated that the legislature's use of devolution was seen as an opportunity to open up the system to new participants, he said. The survey showed non-profit organizations and the business community exerted moderate influence over county welfare policy changes. County implementation of welfare reform was an opportunity to redefine welfare as a community concern and not simply a task of the local social service agency.

"Welfare reform in North Carolina has, for the most part, confirmed the capability of local counties to organize and direct resources to deal with complex social conditions," said Cooke, professor of social work. "Local county social service agencies have been able to redefine themselves and escape from a model that has been in place since the depression of the 1930s. Overall, they seem to be doing a good job."

More information is available concerning initial survey results on the project's website: www.unc.edu/depts/welfare.

Note: Wright can be reached at 919-962-0414 (w), 929-2847 (h) and dswright@mindspring.com, Cooke at 962-6531 (w), 968-0434 (h) and pwcooke@email.unc.edu. Project director Susan Webb's address is swebb@email.unc.edu and assistant project director Christine Kelleher's is cak@email.unc.edu.

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC News Services












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