Study of Work Participation and Full Engagement Strategies

09/01/2004

Content

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) made sweeping changes to the welfare system in the United States, replacing the 60-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with a block grant to states to create the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. A system that once focused on the delivery of cash benefits now encourages families to make the transition from welfare to work.

This dramatic policy change has drawn attention to the need to engage recipients in activities that build their capacity to work. In fact, PRWORA requires states to engage a certain minimum percentage of their caseload in specified work and work-related activities for a specified number of hours per week. The required rate in most states has been relatively low to date, however, because the minimum rate is reduced by one percentage point for each percentage point that a state's average monthly caseload drops below its average monthly caseload for fiscal year 1995 (and the drop is not a result of eligibility or other policy changes). Thus, most states have not been terribly restricted by the federal legislation. While the percentage of TANF cases meeting the participation requirement nationwide is relatively low (33 percent in fiscal year 2002), states are likely engaging a larger share of cases either in activities other than those specified in the legislation or in the specified activities but for fewer hours than required by the federal law. The goal of engaging all or nearly all TANF recipients in work and work-related activities is even explicit in some state and local programs.

Information on the strategies state and local programs use to engage all or most TANF recipients in work activities is important because it could help other programs that have the same goal in mind. Yet, we know little about which programs currently strive toward this goal or the strategies they use to do so. To learn more, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR) to conduct the Study of Work Participation and Full Engagement Strategies, an examination of seven state and local programs that attempt to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients (excluding recipients in child-only cases) in work and work-related activities. This report presents the study findings, which are especially timely, as the proposed reauthorization of the TANF legislation will likely require states to engage a greater percentage of their caseload in work activities.

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Research Questions

The Study of Work Participation and Full Engagement Strategies had three broad objectives: to identify state and local programs that intend to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients (excluding those in child-only cases) in work or work-related activities, to examine how these programs operate, and to identify ways in which other programs might engage a larger share of their caseload in work or work-related activities. More specifically, the study sought to answer the following research questions:

  • Which state and local programs currently strive to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients in work or work-related activities?
  • What program services and administrative procedures do state and local programs use to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients in work or work-related activities?
  • To what extent are programs that attempt to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients succeeding, and how do levels of engagement in these programs compare to program participation rates as defined by the federal TANF legislation?

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Site Selection and Data Sources

Our primary objective in selecting study sites for the study was to include a wide range of programs that intend to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients (excluding those in child-only cases) in work or work-related activities, regardless of the extent to which they have succeeded in doing so. Sites were not selected for their best or promising practices for engaging clients, nor were they selected on the basis of their federal participation rate. The final study sites were selected on the basis of our review of existing data and discussions with a diverse group of researchers, policymakers, and staff at nongovernmental organizations.

The sites included in the study represent three types of programs, distinguished by (1) whether some or all recipients are required to participate in activities and by (2) the activities in which recipients are required to participate. The first type of program requires all TANF recipients to participate in work or work-related activities. Programs in El Paso County, Colorado; in Franklin and Montgomery counties in Ohio; and in the states of Utah and Wisconsin fall into this category. The second type of program requires only some recipients to participate (by providing exemptions for circumstances such as disabilities or the need to care for very young children) but strives to engage all nonexempt recipients in work or work-related activities. Riverside County, California, falls into this category and is most typical of TANF programs nationwide. It was included in the study, in part, because of its efforts to maximize participation among employed TANF recipients. The third type of program requires all recipients to participate in activities but not necessarily in work or work-related activities. Oswego County, New York, represents this type of program in that it mandates that all TANF recipients take part in case management but attempts to engage in work or work-related activities only recipients who are not exempt from work requirements for medical or other reasons.

Data for the study were derived from two sources: comprehensive case studies of all seven sites and administrative data from management information systems in two sitesùEl Paso County, Colorado, and Utah. The purpose of the case studies was to gather information from a variety of sources in order to create a comprehensive picture of strategies used to engage TANF recipients in work and work-related activities. Toward this end, two members of the MPR project team conducted two- to three-day visits to each program during winter and spring 2004 to interview program administrators and staff and to review case files for various types of TANF recipients. The purpose of the administrative data analysis was to examine the extent to which recipients are engaged in program activities and the circumstances of those who are not counted in the federal participation rate.

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Key Findings

Key findings on programs that aim to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients (excluding those in child-only cases) in work and work-related activities, and the strategies they use to do so include the following:

Relatively few states or counties appear to have explicit policies or procedures for engaging all or nearly all TANF recipients in work or work-related activities.

  • We asked a broad group of researchers, policymakers, and staff at nongovernment organizations to identify program sites that (1) exempt very few recipients from participating in work or work-related activities, (2) have an explicit goal of actively engaging all or nearly all recipients in program activities, and (3) have an explicit strategy in place to achieve this level of engagement.
  • Only three state and five local programs nationwide were identified (it is possible other state and local programs have policies and procedures in place for engaging all or nearly all TANF recipients in work or work-related activities, but were not identified in this process).

Programs that aim to engage a large share of TANF recipients in work and work-related activities do not approach this goal in the same way.

  • Five of the study sites require virtually all recipients to participate in program activities. However, the philosophies guiding the programs and the contexts in which they operate differ. El Paso County focuses on the needs of the entire family, while Utah focuses on the individual recipient's strengths. The other three sites use a ôwork-firstö model, but the Ohio counties emphasize work experience placements, while Wisconsin emphasizes a more individualized style of service delivery.
  • Two sites take different approaches that do not require all recipients to participate in work activities. Oswego County in New York requires all recipients to participate in monthly group case management meetings but requires only some to participate in work activities. The county's philosophy is that regular contact with staff and peer support will help recipients take incremental steps toward employment. Riverside County in California requires only some recipients to participate in activities, but the activities must pertain directly to work. The county's philosophy is that work plus education and training is the best way to become self-sufficient.

To engage a large share of recipients in work and work-related activities, programs use two key strategies, alone or in combination: (1) defining the activities in which recipients can participate broadly and (2) providing employment opportunities outside the labor market.

  • Six of the seven study sites allow recipients who are not work ready to participate in a broad range of activities, including many that do not count in the federal participation rate calculation. Many of these activities are designed to (1) address personal and family challenges such as mental health problems or substance abuse, (2) help recipients obtain work supports such as child care or transportation, and (3) support recipients' efforts to obtain services or comply with requirements in other programs, such as child welfare or child support enforcement services or programs.
  • Four of the seven sites use work experience placements as a primary strategy for engaging recipients who have not found employment. These placements are designed to give recipients with limited work histories the opportunity to learn new skills and to gain a better understanding of workplace norms and behaviors.

Individualized service planning, supported by comprehensive assessments, helps program staff determine the activities that are most appropriate for each TANF recipient.

  • To identify the unique circumstance that may help or hinder each recipient's progress toward employment, all sites conduct standard employability assessments, and most conduct more specialized assessments. Case managers use the results to determine which activities are most appropriate for each recipient and, in sites that allow case managers to do it, to justify variation in the hours recipients are required to participate.
  • Even after the initial assessment and employment plan are complete, case managers play an active role in helping recipients move into paid employment. They regularly follow up with recipients to reassess their circumstances, modify employment goals, address barriers to employment, and provide encouragement and support. Small caseloads or group case management meetings make frequent contact feasible.

Four administrative procedures  communicating a clear and consistent program message, tracking participation, sanctioning for nonparticipation, and holding staff accountable through performance standards and supervision  advance broad engagement.

  • Communicating clearly and consistently that the mission of the welfare agency is to put TANF recipients back to work  and that all recipients are capable of taking steps toward this goal  is extremely important, particularly in programs that offer a broad range of acceptable activities. Administrators must communicate this message to program staff and agency partners, and staff must communicate it to TANF recipients.
  • Tracking participation allows case managers to (1) identify nonparticipation quickly, (2) respond to it by re-engaging recipients and/or helping them to resolve issues that affect participation, and (3) document noncompliance as a mechanism for holding recipients accountable for their progress.
  • When case managers identify nonparticipation, they frequently use the sanction process as the means to re-engage recipients. In all sites, case managers communicate with those at risk of being sanctioned via mail and telephone, but in some sites, they conduct face-to-face conciliation meetings or refer recipients to specialized workers who do more intensive outreach.
  • In some sites, performance standards for local offices and front-line staff are used to encourage high levels of engagement in activities, and in most of the sites, supervisors play an active role in making sure that case managers develop and monitor employment plans for all recipients on their caseloads.

When all program activities are taken into account, the study sites in which we were able to analyze administrative data achieved high levels of engagement.

  • In the two study sites that allow all TANF recipients to participate in the broadest range of program activities  El Paso County, Colorado, and Utah  the vast majority of all recipients (90 and 82 percent, respectively) are assigned to participate in program activities to some extent.
  • A substantial portion of recipients in these sites (44 percent in El Paso County and 62 percent in Utah) either participates only in activities that are not considered in the federal participation rate calculation or combines nonfederal with federally countable activities. Currently, most of these recipients are not counted in the numerator of the federal participation rate.

Keeping the majority of TANF recipients engaged in program activities is an ongoing struggle.

  • Despite the multitude of engagement strategies programs use, a nontrivial portion of the caseload is not actively involved in any activities at any point in time. Moreover, the likelihood of sitting idle on the caseload increases with time on the caseload; in a cohort of TANF recipients in a typical month, the percentage remaining on TANF but not in activities doubles within five to six months.
  • Programs face a number of challenges not only in engaging TANF recipients in work or work-related activities initially but also in sustaining their participation. These challenges include shrinking fiscal resources, staff turnover and high caseloads, and inadequate capacity in traditional and specialized program activities.

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Potential Next Steps

Two limitations to this study suggest areas for additional research. First, the study did not set out to identify factors that contribute to high or low levels of engagement among TANF recipients, nor did it include sites for their best or promising engagement practices. Additional research designed specifically to identify factors that lead to higher levels of engagement would offer better guidance to state and local programs on how to respond to the new participation requirements that may be included in the pending TANF reauthorization legislation. Second, we examined actual levels of engagement only in the two sites that offer the broadest range of activities to all TANF recipients. Similar analyses in sites that offer a more narrow range of activities would provide deeper insight into the extent to which both the federal participation rate calculation is capturing activity among TANF recipients and recipients are actively striving toward self-sufficiency.