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Comments on Rossi

Michael Laracy, former director of Policy, Planning, and Program Evaluation, New Jersey Department of Human Services[1] 

            I cannot comment on the technical and methodological issues that Dr. Rossi raises (see Chapter X).  I am not an expert in quantitative analysis and am not prepared to weigh in on whether, for example, a logit or probit regression—with or without a Huber correction—is an appropriate analytic methodology. Dr. Rossi’s conclusions are reasonable, and his assessment is fair, balanced, and warranted. Specifically, the three major criticisms on which he elaborates throughout his chapter are accurate. Even putting aside the question of whether the regression models are appropriate, the other criticisms that Dr. Rossi makes of the impact evaluation justify his conclusion that “the deficiencies [of the Rutgers evaluation] are serious enough to cast strong doubts on the validity of the findings.” 

            The Rutgers impact evaluation of FDP (Camasso, Harvey, Jagannathan, and Killingsworth 1998a.,b) is suggestive and informative, but not conclusive, definitive, or authoritative; in the absence of other, stronger studies, it can help inform the debate about the effects of FDP, but by no means does it settle anything. I have several historical and contextual observations about why the Rutgers study—particularly the research on the family cap—was so flawed.

First, objective and rigorous evaluation of FDP was a low priority for the Florio administration when the evaluation decisions were made in 1991 and 1992. When the FDP laws were originally enacted and the state sought “Section 1115” waivers, senior officials within the governor’s office (who were engaged in the negotiations) were actively opposed to rigorous evaluation of FDP, particularly to any evaluation of “social” versus “economic” effects. The Florio administration recognized that the family cap was highly controversial and did not want to provide any evidence for its opponents. The sponsor (Senator Wayne Bryant) and the governor’s staff realized that objective evaluations might be used to challenge—both in the courts and in the press—their predictions and pronouncements of early success. In negotiations with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the governor’s staff were instructed to resist the 1115 waiver requirements for evaluations, and the state acquiesced only under unrelenting federal insistence. In my experience, no complex, challenging, expensive, controversial, and long evaluation can succeed without genuine support from those in leadership roles. Because such support was absent from the project’s inception, odds were always stacked against the NJDHS and the Rutgers evaluators.

Second, the state budget crisis of the period mitigated against allocating sufficient resources for the evaluation. To minimize outlays, the state opted for the least expensive modes and methodologies of evaluation. Although most of the major research evaluation organizations attended the RFP bidders’ conference, none submitted bids. Only three bids were submitted, and the state selected the cheapest proposal, despite some misgivings about its adequacy. The Rutgers proposal was bid at roughly $1 million, half the cost of the next lowest bid. Frankly, the resulting evaluation was a bargain-basement job. For example, the difficult task of tracking down and interviewing participants about their views on FDP fell to minimally trained students, not professionals. Thus, the dismal survey response rate was hardly surprising. The state got what it paid for.

Third, as Dr. Rossi details, the implementation of FDP was inconsistent, and the treatment and control groups were badly contaminated. In the rush to implement FDP, little was done to ensure that the treatment and control groups received the appropriate services and were affected by the correct policies. Likewise, little was done to inform treatment and control groups about their status and how the law would or would not affect them. Surveys of members of the treatment and control groups showed, not surprisingly, widespread misperceptions about their status. Moreover, because New Jersey has a county-operated welfare system, there was no one FDP program; rather, there were 21 programs, with considerable variation across the counties. Because the interventions were not correctly or consistently applied, it is impossible to attribute any outcomes to them. Also, no attempts were made to deal with the “community effects” and media saturation to which both treatment and control subjects were equally subjected. Dr. Rossi’s comments in this regard are particularly well taken.

Fourth, FDP was a package of reforms; no analytic attempt was made to disentangle the effects, only to estimate the net aggregate effects of the whole package. As Dr. Rossi’s assessment mentions,  seven simultaneous interventions occurred within FDP, with no means in the evaluation methodology to determine which reforms were causing which outcomes. Some of FDP’s reforms plausibly may have operated in opposition to each other, negating each reform’s effects. For example, although the family cap might have encouraged those affected by its provisions to exit welfare more quickly, the law’s heavy emphasis on secondary and postsecondary education (rather than workforce attachment) might tend to encourage longer stays on welfare. Or, the heavy emphasis on schooling somehow might have contributed to changes in birth rates, either reinforcing or weakening any effects of the family cap.

Fifth,  societal changes were taking place, altering the environment within which FDP and the family cap were operating.  Social attitudes and behaviors regarding nonmarital births and teen births began changing nationally in quite dramatic ways in 1991 and 1992. In many ways, the family cap was one crystallization of these changing societal values and norms. For instance, starting in 1992, concurrent with the adoption of the New Jersey reforms, teen births started to decline nationwide (after six years of steady increases). The declines have continued every year since then, becoming quite pronounced.  With that type of social change, it becomes almost impossible to tease out the effects of one policy change. Likewise, starting in 1994, welfare caseloads began to decline nationwide and in New Jersey, primarily a result of the robust economic growth of the past nine years. Consequently, the residual caseload in 1996 had quite different characteristics from the 1992 caseload, including age, race, education, average length of stay, and family composition.  Any pre–post comparison that does not adjust for the compositional changes is flawed.

Sixth, it is one thing to evaluate labor market participation; it is far harder to understand and measure such social behaviors as reproductive decisions. Decades of research on welfare-to-work demonstrations have generated a pretty good set of theoretical constructs, models, assumptions, and contexts within which to interpret evaluation findings about earnings, labor force participation, and so forth. In contrast, we know little about how financial incentives affect reproductive decisions; few models and constructs are widely accepted, the relevant data are not very reliable, and the values and hypotheses are wildly confusing and conflicted. This lack of shared knowledge and assumptions makes it hard to appraise weak findings such as those of the Rutgers evaluation. In contrast, the Rutgers evaluation of FDP’s welfare-to-work effects, costs, and benefits were consistent with other studies and are not controversial (Camasso, Harvey, and Jagannathan 1998). Despite the many limitations and flaws of the evaluation, most analysts will probably accept the Rutgers findings on the labor-market effects as true, if not convincingly proved.

Finally, a single evaluation within one state should never have been expected to provide a definitive answer to such a complex and controversial policy reform. Even if the Rutgers findings had been far more robust and unequivocal, no serious analyst would want to make policy decisions or conclusions on the basis of one study. No one ever should have thought that one evaluation in one state would provide anything more than a single contribution to a complex mosaic of analyses and studies. The conclusions and lessons about the relative effects of workforce attachments versus human capital investment models took dozens of separate evaluations and a decade of intensive analysis. The effects of this type of unprecedented social policy reform will take at least as much study before firm conclusions can be reached.

My observations might be construed as being critical of either the Rutgers evaluation team or the NJDHS staff responsible for overseeing the evaluation. That would be wrong and unfortunate. Many of the decisions and circumstances that so compromised the potential and results of the evaluation were largely beyond the control of the people most directly involved in the project. The decisions to avoid, constrain, minimize, and underfund the federally mandated evaluation were made by the governor’s office, not by anyone at NJDHS. Likewise, the inability of the researchers and their NJDHS colleagues to isolate the treatment and control groups from dramatic secular and environmental changes or to make midcourse corrections was not their fault. Finally, the unrealistic expectations and wishes of the public, the media, and most policy makers for definitive and conclusive findings—notwithstanding repeated disclaimers by NJDHS staff—destined the project to disappoint. Under the best of circumstances, evaluating the effects of the family cap would have been a daunting task. Under the miserable circumstances that prevailed, it was doomed.

 

References

Camasso, M. J.; Harvey, C.; Jagannathan, R.; and Killingsworth, M. 1998a. A final report on the impact of New Jersey’s Family Development Program. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University.

 Camasso, M. J.; Harvey, C.; Jagannathan, R.; and Killingsworth, M. 1998b. A final report on the impact of New Jersey’s Family Development Program. Results from a pre-post analysis of AFDC case heads from 1990 to 1996. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University.

 Camasso, M. J.; Harvey, C.; and Jagannathan, R. 1998. Cost-benefit analysis of New Jersey’s Family Development Program: Final report. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University. 



[1] In the interest of full disclosure, let me acknowledge my associations with FDP and the Rutgers evaluation.  I served as director of policy, planning, and program evaluation for the New Jersey Department of Human Services (NJDHS), during which time I was heavily involved in the development of the request for proposals (RFP) for the evaluation of the Family Development Program (FDP) and in the award of the contract to Rutgers. I also was heavily involved in the negotiation of the federal waivers for FDP. However, I was only indirectly involved in the actual implementation of FDP and the Rutgers evaluation, most of which occurred after I left state service. I also should note that my wife, Eileen McGinnis, currently serves as Governor Whitman’s chief of policy, and thus is involved in New Jersey’s current welfare policy.


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