It's more complex than 'big gov't's bad'

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is pursuing a new policy approach that strives to keep children with families, rather than transfer them into foster homes or institutional care. Unfortunately, voters are not likely to hear commercials about government programs that work. It doesn't fit the narrative. It's too easy for Republicans to argue that all government is bad and the taxes to pay for it unwarranted, and too difficult for Democrats to respond with examples such as this.

The Obama administration has been working to modify a counterintuitive federal funding formula that awarded states for breaking up families and penalized them for programs and efforts to keep families intact.

Connecticut has suffered financially under the flawed program. Over the last several years the state's Department of Children and Families has reduced the number of children in state custody by 20 percent. Child-welfare advocates see this as a positive development. DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has made it a priority to seek alternatives to placing children in control of the state, working with members of the extended family, for instance, to find a safe home for kids or expanding assistance to keep troubled children in their homes.

As recently reported by The Connecticut Mirror, the state's success has meant Connecticut losing nearly $50 million in federal subsidies. Under existing formulas, the size of a state's allocation is tied to the number of children in state custody. Do a better job of keeping families together and a state loses funding for child-welfare services. The state received $74.5 million in federal reimbursements during the most recent fiscal year, an $18 million reduction from the prior year.

To end this disincentive, the Administration for Children and Families, part of health and human services, has developed a waiver program. States receiving the waiver can continue to receive the same level of subsidies, a revenue neutral approach that allows states to use the savings to pay for other programs aimed at improving the welfare of children. The goal, according to the agency, is to "allow more flexible use of federal funds in order to test new approaches to service delivery."

Waivers are not automatic. States must demonstrate their policies are reducing the time children spend in foster care and improving successful re-entries back with families. Other policy initiatives that can earn a state a waiver include developing strategies to help kids who have spent time in the child-welfare system transition to adulthood, keep siblings together, and reduce group-home placements.

Thirteen states have asked for waivers. Connecticut needs to join them. The Connecticut DCF is already pursuing many of the priorities required by the waiver program as it tries to meet the demands of a long-standing federal court order, dating to 1991, issued when the state was doing a particularly poor job meeting the needs of children in its care.

Such nuanced programs don't fit the national big/small government debate. By helping states improve the outcomes for troubled kids and kids in troubled situations, the federal government can be a partner in producing long-term savings. Success can mean children who grow into better educated and productive adults, place fewer burdens on the social services system and produce less prisoners, among the most costly of outcomes.

Conversely, slashing spending for such programs might produce short term savings, but with dire long-term implications, to say nothing of the reduced help for some of society's most vulnerable. Those are the complexities we fear the current debate is missing.

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