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A Push for Human Services Block Grant, Despite Data Difficulties

The Corbett administration wants to expand the block grant approach of funding county human services programs, despite concerns that assessments of the new method have been done in a vacuum.

The human services block grant was approved in 2012, changing the way certain counties receive human services funding. Instead of getting discrete funding for seven different programs, selected counties have received one lump sum to parcel out among all the services.

Skeptics of the block grant approach worried it would pit a county’s human services programs against one another in a competition for funding. The compromise was to allow a pilot program, now with 30 counties participating. A report by the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW) was supposed to evaluate its effectiveness.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), who has long opposed using block grants for human services, said last week that the state’s report has policy amnesia. It doesn’t include data from pilot program counties before they implemented the block grant.

“You have all the statistics, and how good it’s doing, and my one question is: compared to what?” DiGirolamo asked the DPW secretary during a hearing last week. “We have nothing to compare what you have in this report to from the prior year.”

A DPW spokesman said the agency hasn’t found a way to compare counties using the lump-sum block grant to counties that are getting their human services funding the old-fashioned way: in seven distinct line items that can’t be commingled.

“Future reports will assist the Department in determining the effectiveness of the program,” said spokesman Eric Kiehl in an e-mail.

Gathering necessary data from counties has also been a challenge. “There is not really a consistent way that the counties report that data back to us,” said Kiehl, echoing something DPW Secretary Bev Mackereth mentioned last week.

“We don’t have all the data we need,” she said, “because nobody really took into account — it’s not about people served, it’s about quality. It’s about, what did we do? Outcomes?”

Still, Mackereth said the Corbett administration wants to see the block grant approach expanded from the current 30 participating counties to all 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

“We would love to open it up to any county who is willing to get in, who is able to come in, and who is prepared to do so,” Mackereth said.