Early Implementation of the Welfare-to-Work Grants Program: Findings From Exploratory Site Visits and Review of Program Plans. Innovative Program Strategies Are Being Implemented


Despite slow startup and the early implementation issues that arose, many WtW grantees are developing program strategies that deserve attention and that go beyond traditional programs common in their communities. Especially noteworthy are the creative approaches of some grantees in three aspects of program design and implementation:

  1. extending services to populations of particular importance,
  2. providing postemployment services, and
  3. establishing partnerships with employers.

Targeting Special Populations.  Overall, the WtW grants program represents an important resource because the funding it provides and the services it supports are required to focus almost exclusively on individuals with the greatest barriers to employment. To be sure, programs have long existed that could serve the WtW target population, including general employment and training programs and AFDC and TANF work programs. In general, however, such programs were not designed specifically for people with severe and multiple employment barriers. To the extent such people participated, they could easily exhaust the standard resources offered by the programs, without reaching successful outcomes. These populations have been underserved in the past.

Some WtW subgroups, in particular, represent important extensions of the population for whom successful employment has become a program priority. Noncustodial parents, mainly fathers, are an important target group in the legislation authorizing the WtW grants, and their priority is evident in the programs being developed. The programs visited are still in the very early stages of serving noncustodial parents, but many are making progress in identifying their needs, learning about more (and less) effective ways to recruit fathers, and devising program activities in which fathers will participate. For example, by targeting men under supervision of probation and parole officers, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections program in Milwaukee hopes to achieve high participation rates at a critical juncture in the fathers' lives, to improve their employability, strengthen their ties to their children, and reduce recidivism. Other programs that are working with child support enforcement programs to target fathers are trying to strike a balance between the enforcement mission of child support and the employability development mission of WtW.

WtW grant programs and their experiences are likely to improve understanding of strategies for improving employability and employment success among people with physical, mental, and cognitive disabilities. Several grantees examined in the exploratory visits are working with vocational rehabilitation programs and organizations such as Goodwill Industries. Several WtW programs are developing strategies to reach out to homeless individuals, including both custodial and noncustodial parents.

Providing Longer-Term and Postemployment Services.  WtW grantees are generally viewing their services and their interaction with participants as extending over a considerably longer period than is true in other programs, for two reasons arising from the WtW legislation. First, the legislation specifies that grant funds can be used for education or skills training only after an individual enters employment. Some program administrators and staff complained about this restriction during the site visits, but many grantees have developed innovative approaches to provide training and education in conjunction with work. Several programs are subsidizing training in the workplace, and some are, in cooperation with employers, arranging education and training classes at worksites. In effect, these approaches make entry to a job not the end point for education and training, but potentially a starting point.

The legislation also encourages long-term services by specifying job retention services as an allowable use of grant funds, without imposing a time limit on such services to individual participants. JTPA programs, through the reporting required of them under performance standards, routinely maintain contact with individuals for 60 or 90 days after they enter employment. Many JTPA programs assist participants in various ways, if necessary, during that limited follow-up period. AFDC recipients were entitled to transitional child care and Medicaid for up to a year after leaving welfare for employment, and TANF continues transitional services, with many states extending them for longer periods of time. All these programs, however, have limited the duration of services.

Once enrolled in WtW grant programs, in contrast, participants retain eligibility indefinitely. All 22 grantees included in the exploratory visits have made a commitment to provide job retention services and help participants find subsequent jobs when necessary. Some of the programs limit their counseling and follow-up services to a specific period of time  such as six months, one year, or two years after entering employment.(14)  Even in these cases, however, the intensity of attention programs intend to pay to participants over that period goes beyond what was possible under previous program protocols. Some programs go further by continuing to provide assistance to their participants for as long as the program is funded.

Establishing Partnerships with Employers.  A third area of innovation in WtW programs is the development of various types of partnerships with private employers and businesses. Several of the 22 grantees have developed arrangements that include employer commitments to hire WtW participants who complete certain program activities. The more creative, work-based partnerships go beyond simply identifying potential job openings; they also involve businesses in designing internships and occupationally focused work experience assignments. The Full Employment Council, Inc., in Kansas City, for example, has adopted an approach that combines employer wage subsidies with incentives to retain employees and upgrade their skills.

The continuing strong economy provides an ideal environment for testing such partnerships between employers and public programs. Difficulty in hiring entry-level employees has encouraged many employers to view such partnerships as a potentially fruitful way to develop the labor force they need for current operations and future expansion. The mutual benefits to be gained by grantees and employers thus offer an important chance to refine some of the creative administrative and service strategies inherent in these partnerships and, more broadly, in WtW programs of all kinds, to improve the employment skills of the hardest-to-employ individuals.

These programs are attempting to go beyond current welfare recipients and serve the general low-skilled working population  an aim that entails new challenges for many of the agencies involved. Noncustodial parents are an important target population, but referral systems and outreach networks for this population either had not existed before the WtW grant programs started or, if they did exist, were unfamiliar to many program operators. WtW grants provide funds for substantial services beyond job placement, and thus challenge grantees to create systems for ongoing employment-related services to low-skilled working parents to help them sustain their employment and advance.

The WtW grants program, in these and other ways, requires major system change for successful implementation, perhaps even greater and more time-consuming than could have been anticipated when the WtW legislation was authorized for fiscal years 1998 and 1999. The structure of the WtW grants program was designed to draw from both the labor market and employment expertise of the workforce development system and the social services and welfare knowledge found in the TANF system. Capitalizing on the strengths of each system requires close coordination of administration and service delivery, to identify eligible participants, verify their eligibility, ensure that they receive services, and track their progress. The preliminary site visits suggest that, overall, the WtW grants program is having a positive effect on coordination, but not without difficulty. Coordination takes time, both to establish logistics and to maintain communications.

In summary, implementing the WtW grants program is complex in many ways beyond the widely reported difficulties resulting from the stringent eligibility criteria. While implementation of the programs proceeded modestly in the first year, examples of promising strategies are emerging in the field as programs design new approaches to target hard-to-serve groups, serve noncustodial parents, address job retention issues, and improve coordination between welfare and workforce development agencies. The exploratory visits discussed in this report suggest that many grantees have developed programs that show promise, but their efforts to make the complex programmatic and systemic changes required to carry out their challenging mission will take time. Subsequent components of the evaluation will examine implementation progress in more detail over the next year, through in-depth field work and analysis of services to participants in selected sites.