Fixing to Change: A Best Practices Assessment of One-Stop Job Centers Working With Welfare Recipients. Improving Service Integration vs. Service Reduction


The efficiencies created as employment services are integrated are creating concerns among front line staff about potential staff reductions, particularly as TANF caseloads decline. Long term funding plans in at least one state visited suggest that this concern is not unfounded, raising several important questions about the purpose and design of service integration.

One of the key factors helping to propel federally funded employment agencies toward One-Stop models is the long term decline in funding for these services. During the last two decades, federal funding for many of the basic job matching services has remained roughly constant in nominal terms, creating a significant decline in terms of the purchasing power of these resources. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for states to continue to provide employment services in a staff intensive manner where employment counselors meet and work individually with job seekers. By moving to a One-Stop model, the intent is to use new, electronic or computer technologies to provide wider access to a broad spectrum of employment services on a self-serve basis, and target more intensive, one-on-one assistance for those relatively few clients with more complex needs.

In essence, this approach, often referred to as the "inverted pyramid" model, is intended to reallocate scarce resources to improve service to job seekers and employers. In many cases, both of these customer groups are capable of gaining more access to more information and services under a self-serve model than under the traditional gate-keeper model of employment agencies. Job-seekers can access computerized data bases at the One-Stop or from off-site and post their own resume and conduct their own job search, while employers can post their job listings and do key-word searches to recruit employees through posted resumes. Jointly staffed, self-service resources at the One-Stop should also free up staff time to provide more in-depth assistance to high need clients, such as long term TANF beneficiaries with few labor market skills or start-up businesses. While these benefits were affirmed by the One-Stop models examined, several focus groups also raised questions about whether the One-Stop model under current welfare reforms and work requirements tends to "invert the pyramid and cut off the bottom."

In particular, some of the One-Stop staff and current participant groups were concerned that the resources derived from efficiencies on the self-service end of the pyramid may not be reallocated to helping families with multiple problems. Instead, they fear that these efficiencies may be used to justify a slowdown in budget increases (less than inflation) or staff reductions for the primary partners, while poorly prepared parents are being pushed into the labor market with insufficient preparation. This is of particular concern for clients without a high school education, little or no work experience, and substance abuse or physical or mental health problems.

It was our sense in talking with managers, staff, and clients, that those TANF clients best served by the One-Stop model tend to be persons who are capable of meeting their needs through self-service, or would benefit from adult education, life skills training, job search workshops, and general motivational counseling. The groups that may not fare as well are those with substance abuse or physical or mental health problems, in part because One-Stop services do not appear to be well equipped for identifying these problems and working with them. Several case managers argued that while these clients may certainly be employable, they may not be able to stay employed for long periods of time or find employment that will lead to self-sufficiency.(19) Further, it is unclear whether their referral networks are strong enough to ensure that clients with these difficulties are served well by the entire system - that they are not simply "handed off" and thus disconnected from whatever benefits they might derive from employment related services.

The challenge of serving clients with multiple problems is becoming greater for One-Stops in areas where TANF caseloads have declined the most. In most of the locations visited, between 20 percent and 30 percent of TANF clients are "high needs" cases that require one-on-one assistance. Typically these are clients who are much less likely to make a successful transition to self-sufficiency ("who will never get off," according to one caseworker), and who also require significantly more staff resources than the typical TANF client who is searching for employment. As TANF caseloads decline dramatically, these more difficult, resource-intensive cases will account for a higher percentage of the total caseload. This was noted in Marshalltown, where the statewide number of PROMISE JOBS cases has declined from 40,000 to 28,000 in recent years. A similar pattern was emphasized in Kenosha, where the number of welfare cases has fallen by two-thirds, but staff estimate that only 20 percent of the current welfare referrals to employment services are new to the welfare system.(20)

Despite the dramatic declines in the number of TANF cases in places like Iowa and Wisconsin, caseloads do not seem to have declined for other services such as Food Stamps, child care, or medical assistance. Nowhere is this pattern more apparent than in Wisconsin, where food, child care, and health care assistance have been "de-linked" to welfare eligibility. State spending on these assistance programs has actually risen, and at the same time, the administration of these cases has become more complex as economic support specialists must now assess family needs for these services based on independent sets of qualifying criteria. Nonetheless, state policy makers in Wisconsin have indicated their expectation that staff resources can be reduced in the future due to declines in welfare caseloads.

This pattern is clearly unsettling to many caseworkers, and certainly raises questions about how much depth of service One-Stops are expected to provide for clients with high needs. It also calls into question whether the objective of work requirements is to simply lower TANF caseloads by moving clients into low-wage jobs or to provide sufficient and in some cases long term economic support for working parents to gain the experience and skills to become self-sufficient.