For a national program, AFDC allows an astonishing degree of regional variation, with each state having its own rules for eligibility, subsequent household budgets, and a variety of other matters. Typically, these rules are extraordinarily complex, and their application requires continual interpretive decisions by state-level and field-office personnel. The density of substantive field-office decision making, fostered through decentralization, is further complicated by high turnover among recipients and their concurrent use of other public assistance programs.
AFDC's original objective was to supervise transfer payments, but the addition of social services components in 1962 presented more demanding and less well-defined program objectives. So-called hard services, those clearly related to employment such as job training and placement, have had relatively modest success, and providers in other government agencies have complained about the constraints that serving AFDC recipients places on them. The so-called softer services—basic adult education—have less clear-cut objectives and have sometimes become twisted to serve the needs of state financing rather than those of recipient merging.
Compounding the difficulties posed by complex procedures and ambitious objectives, AFDC operates in a highly decentralized fashion. Decentralization opens the door to differences in objectives among the national, state, and local levels as well as among the various agencies involved at any given level. Additionally, decentralization places a great deal of decision-making responsibility at the bottom of the organizational pyramid, where a variety of personnel problems and high rates of employee turnover hamper administrative efficiency. To reduce some of these complexities, the guaranteed-income proposals of the 1970s sought to standardize
many rules on a national basis and to return the program's focus from social services to income transfers.
AFDC's most prominent limits issues involve the types and degrees of need covered by the program. To take but one prominent example, fewer than half of the states chose to expand eligibility to households with an unemployed male by instituting AFDC-UP. State-by-state guidelines about what constitutes need reinforce the notion that AFDC is, despite its formal legal standing, a type of gratuity rather than a socioeconomic right. The English poor laws linger on in contemporary AFDC practice.
AFDC's harmonization with other relevant public policy objectives is sharply uneven. Public revenues allocated to AFDC are usually spent quickly, so the program minimally helps to maintain consumer demand and therefore employment. But since most AFDC recipients are not full-time members of the labor force, one could argue that the program removes potential workers from labor-market participation. Unlike social security, AFDC is not considered as an important contributor to inflation.
AFDC's central harmonization problem lies in the insulation of the program from the labor market—an inherent aspect of program design that is highly artificial in a society that places great emphasis on work. Efforts by the Nixon and Carter administrations to reform public assistance by replacing AFDC, rather than by tinkering with the specifics of the existing program, were well intended, but their guaranteed-income proposals were also seriously at odds with American political values about work.
With respect to the values of limited and local government, AFDC offers a mixed but not generally encouraging fit. The program is relatively small, but it looms large in the public's perception. Regional and, less legitimately, case discretion provide some measure of local governance, and there have been several interesting state-level experiments in recent years. But local discretion can just as easily become a tool for institutionalized racism and other disturbing practices.