Federal spending on social reform: what went wrong, and where do we go from here?

by Paul Berman

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In spite of opponents' claims, federal social reform policies have produced positive outcomes. However, results have been disappointing and much money has been poorly spent. The best hope for avoiding indiscriminate reductions in this era of fiscal limitations and general retrenchment is understanding how federal reform efforts went awry and taking corrective measures. Past policies were ineffective because of unrealistic expectations, faulty assumptions about how local social service delivery systems could be improved, and poor administration. The redefined federal role should be based on three points: (1) Categorical aid and targeted programs should be the backbone of federal policy. (2) Local institutions need assistance in implementing change, need accountability and reasonable constraints, but they do not need excessive regulations, mountains of paperwork, or meaningless evaluations. (3) The federal government should support state agencies in assisting local institutions, as they are in a better position to develop differential funding strategies needed in different localities.

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