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State Computers Fall Short in Welfare Reform

Aid: Consultant says poor integration of technology can slow transition to jobs, prevent tracking of recipients to learn impact on families.


Unable to devise a single statewide computer system, California allowed the counties to form four separate networks. Only one, which serves 18 counties, is actually operating. A second, serving Los Angeles County, is expected to be operational soon. A third has gone out to bid and a fourth is in the planning stage.

Already, according to state consultants, there have been some significant glitches. For example, millions of dollars have been spent on a new system designed to tie all the networks together, without first determining whether a system operated by the Department of Health Services could have performed the same function.

The brightest spot on the welfare computer landscape, Singer said, is the network planned for Los Angeles, which now comes closest to meeting the needs of welfare reform.

The report cited deficiencies in moving people into jobs. Much of the problem, it said, is a reluctance by government agencies to share information. "The philosophy of 'my data is my data, and no one else can have access to it,' prevails when we observed management practices among . . . health and welfare departments," it said.

Both of the completed reports concluded that the computer network is not ready to handle a highly touted welfare reform provision that allows poor families to receive a onetime lump-sum payment to help them through a crisis, but diverts them from welfare.

The reports also emphasized a legislative mandate that welfare officials are responsible for tracking recipients and their children--particularly after they leave welfare.

"I think that's an essential criticism," said Jean Ross, director of the nonprofit California Budget Project. "If you can't track the real outcomes, how do you know whether what you're doing works or not?

"Are a lot of children ending up in foster care, where the costs are very high? Are they ending up in the juvenile justice system, where the social costs are big?"

No Easy Answers

Henry Brady, director of the UC Data System in Berkeley and an author of the report for the technology department, said that adjusting the system to track the effects of welfare reform on families is difficult and computer managers often are reluctant to undertake tasks they consider risky.

"My concern is we spend enormous amounts of money to create systems that only give us very, very narrow . . . things," he said in an interview. "We want welfare to make people better off, and we believe in this country right now that we can do that through time limits. But I think it's incumbent upon us to find out if that is indeed true."

Luttges, of the welfare data center, downplayed the controversy over the Singer report, saying it had been resolved when the consultant agreed to modify certain sections.

He defended hiring a second consultant, saying several people had complained that their comments in the original report were inaccurate.

But Singer said his final report, which the data center found acceptable, varied only slightly from earlier drafts.

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