Conflicts of Interest and Compliance
A program such as AFDC is, by nature, a locus for conflicting interests, the most central of which is that between public officials'
desires to restrict spending for "the poor" and the needs of the program's clientele. Throughout AFDC's history, this conflict has taken different forms. At the program's inception the administrative officials at SSB sought to limit public assistance relative to social insurance, and this preference persisted for a number of years. Up through the early 1960s program executives viewed AFDC as a transfer program concerned with maintaining a limited number of households beset by highly exceptional circumstances. This view was gradually superseded by the alternative conception of AFDC as serving a more progressive task. In 1962 increasing costs prompted the Kennedy administration, on the advice of social work professionals in HEW, to add a social services emphasis to AFDC. Representing the social work view about the path to self-reliance, these services were intended to reform recipients in ways consistent with increased self-sufficiency, but they also enhanced the role of social workers, offering them more interesting tasks than handling caseload paperwork.
Successive initiatives by political leaders through WIN in 1967 were driven most immediately, though not exclusively, by a concern with controlling costs. Since the early 1970s a concern with limiting program costs has been joined, and occasionally even eclipsed, by concerns relating to vertical or work equity and permissiveness. Overall, however, interest among political elites in AFDC has been extremely uneven. The relatively small federal expenditures for AFDC and the concentration of costs in a handful of states means that most members of Congress need not pay much attention to the program. Representatives from affected states have often viewed fiscal relief for state government as more of an issue than program reform, and few House members have significant AFDC constituency interests. Nor have AFDC program executives typically exhibited the devotion and adroitness of their social security counterparts.
At the state level, conflicts of interest between public officials and program clientele vary over time. Some states have been relatively generous in extending eligibility and higher benefits; others have adopted practices designed to deter or discriminate against applicants and restrict benefit levels. The primary federal sanction for achieving state-level adherence to those aspects of the program covered by federal guidelines—the withdrawing of federal funds—
has not proved effective. A few states have been so bold as to call the federal government's bluff in such matters.
The incentives for compliance and cooperation among beneficiaries, federal officials, and third-party providers are no less problematic. With respect to the majority of episodic users, AFDC does provide invaluable assistance for bridging social hazards, but the means test, which generally requires program applicants to be indigent before qualifying for services, is clearly counterproductive. Rather than stimulating self-help efforts, the means test creates strong cross-pressures between self-sufficiency and dependence among persons whose views about their economic futures are understandably uncertain. Once a household qualifies for the program, these conflicting pressures continue, as increased earnings are penalized by reduced benefits. Episodic users work their way toward renewed self-sufficiency in spite of, rather than because of, the program.
For the less numerous persistent users of AFDC, the bonds of habit and dependency have thus far proved intractable. Whether such bonds can be broken humanely—without disruption, suffering, and controversy—is a troubling question.
Three factors mitigate against persistent users' achieving independence from AFDC. First, these are people who have limited or undeveloped capacities with respect to the existing labor market; they are caring for young children and have little in the way of job skills and experience. Second, in addition to information and transportation problems that complicate the matching of recipients and jobs, the existing labor market does not offer enough paid positions capable of sustaining the families that require support. Third, against this structural inadequacy, AFDC offers an enticing form of economic security, one that in extreme cases invites recipient abuse. But while New York City, for example, has been troubled by systematic patterns of abuse, the vast majority of these abuses concern extremely small sums of money. (The popular myth of AFDC recipients driving Cadillacs is precisely a myth.) Nonetheless, cases of abuse do illustrate how the program's design features encourage certain kinds of counterproductive behavior from recipients.
As a program that deals with a narrow and unrepresentative group of vulnerable and generally disadvantaged citizens with
whom upper-middle-class bureaucrats do not readily empathize, AFDC is at a disadvantage compared to programs serving a broad cross-section of the population. Between 1935 and 1962, when AFDC was administered by SSB/SSA, the program executives who were so dedicated to social security exhibited far less enthusiasm for the public assistance program. Even after AFDC became an organizationally coequal division of HEW, program officials did not display the resourcefulness and commitment that characterized their counterparts at social security. The joint national-state character of the program surely impedes administrators' efforts, but the crusade to keep the elderly and the disabled from joining the poor has never been extended to those who are poor.
National elected officials have similarly evaded a strong commitment to AFDC and related public assistance issues. With the exception of Ford, every president since Roosevelt has taken some important initiative with respect to welfare reform, but only Johnson found these programs compelling enough to make persistent efforts on their behalf in the face of congressional opposition. In Congress, as noted earlier, interest in AFDC is sparse and more concerned with formulas for federal cost-sharing than program design or success.
From the perspective of the federal government, state and local officials are third-party providers of various sorts. Characteristically these providers have priorities that differ from those of AFDC's federal program executives. A few states offer aid that exceeds federal guidelines, but other states are reluctant to adhere to the spirit of the law, particularly in the implementation of the social service components. Two key problems have been the use of private contractors whose agendas do not match program objectives and the misappropriation of federal cost-sharing available for social services to finance routine administrative operations.