In each of the focus groups, participants were encouraged to offer their suggestions for improving the welfare and employment systems as part of the closing dialogue. Participants would ask what changes they would make if they were appointed "President-for-the-Day" with special powers over Congress and the states. What additional help could be provided, rules changed, or emphasis shift would make these two systems work better individually and together? This question provided focus group participants an opportunity to talk about both what worked for them (and hence, more is needed) and what didn't work for them. This question provoked a number of heated discussions, thoughtful comments, laughter, and affirmations of the One-Stop concept.
Responses reported here are grouped by the type of focus group. Surprisingly, few participants in any of the groups called for dramatic spending increases in costly programs, major shifts in policy, or significant changes in work requirements. Instead, participants generally offered specific, relatively modest suggestions for improvements:
- Management: Several concerns were raised by managers that focused on two primary areas: expanding resources and interagency coordination, primarily at the state level. Perhaps the most common concern was to provide more support for training activities, both up-front and on-going. As one manager put it, "I'd like to have more funding to add several specific skill training modules, and the programmatic authority to carry it out without pushing people into the labor market with so few skills." The lack of funding or programmatic basis to continue education and training for those who are successful in finding work and getting off of welfare troubled several managers. Increasing program flexibility with current funding -- especially the development of a federal block grant for employment and training programs -- appealed to most of the participating managers. A few felt that state agencies needed to hear the same message. Several expressed frustration with the clash of cultures between state agencies.
- Staff: Focus groups with caseworkers, employment specialists, and other line staff within the One-Stop systems tended to focus on the increasing difficulties of helping those who remain on TANF rolls as caseloads decline. While caseloads vary from agency to agency within a given One-Stop, in most locations it was clear that improving economies with declining caseloads, an increasing proportion of those TANF recipients still receiving assistance are having serious difficulties securing and retaining employment. In many cases, these families have multiple problems that case managers are unable to address in the context of the program due to lack of resources for ongoing assistance. Some felt that more on-the-job training and work experience opportunities were needed. Staff did note the lack of funds for intensive workshops, transportation assistance, and follow-up (other than the JTPA 90-day tracking follow-up). At most sites, line staff felt that too many program rules and procedures are set at the state level, sometimes requiring enforcement when it is not in the best interests of the client and overall program objectives: "Allow local communities to establish the outcomes to promote customer satisfaction."
- Current Participants: The number one change that current TANF participants wanted to see in "the system" was an effective reform of child support - they really want to see the welfare system make absent fathers pay. In many cases, current TANF participants saw their dependence on TANF as the direct result of the failure of the child support system. The second most pressing concern was about child care - how much, where and when - with many participants expressing particular frustration about the lack of part time and swing shift child care or care for children with special medical needs. Transportation problems also ranked high on the list. Several noted the importance of "full service" assistance from case managers and employment counselors who took extra one-on-one time to help with wardrobe, hygiene, transportation, child care, and the other logistical challenges associated with finding and keeping a job. Assistance with what would seem like incidental problems, especially car repair, often was seen as a personal investment that provided additional motivation to the recipient. A few urged greater attention to transitional benefits to ensure that clients about to make it don't get dropped through the cracks. Although none of the participants expressed a specific desire to see changes in the work requirements, some noted concerns about exhausting benefits, while others were concerned with work requirements for pregnant women, given employer's reluctance to hire them. Several stated that they wanted to see a benefit cut-off for "system abusers," but had few specific suggestions for making such a cut-off operational. These opinions seemed to reflect a concern about stigmatizing public assistance and to some degree, a certain intolerance or lack of appreciation of others' circumstances. In a few cases, participants voiced frustration at being expected to "take a job, any job" rather than being allowed more time to develop skills and look for a more desirable job in terms of skill, potential, and wages.
- Former Participants: Views of former participants echoed those of the current participants in many respects. Many current participants and most former participants found the work requirements distasteful at first, but after getting into it, they were frequently quite grateful for "the push." More than one noted that the work requirement was "...the best thing that ever happened to me, I am so much happier now..." A few suggested that non-custodial parents be given the same work requirements and employment services. Some felt that lower caseload rates would help provide the one-on-one assistance they found most important. Others noted that it would be helpful to have a little more flexibility on work hours and give counselors more discretion (rather than have them exercise it without the authority.) Most former participants said that in order for them to continue pursuing education and training now that they are working, it would require One-Stops and training programs to be available at night, with child care, in order for them to surmount the logistics. Many of these workers are single parents, who need to spend time with their children, and have to worry about the logistics of dinner and homework, not to mention having the energy level to try and upgrade their skills at the same time. As a result, very few former participants had continued their skill development after leaving the program (outside of work,) and most sites had very few resources to assist them. Some comments focused on employers and the need for more jobs at higher wages, including increasing the minimum wage. These comments generally support the need to connect these workers with jobs and/or employers that can offer them a career ladder of wage progression that is attached to training they receive on the job, rather than separate, stand-along programs.
- Employers: Employers who actively hire from the One-Stop labor pool were pretty clear about what they thought would work. First, most wanted a single point of contact with employment related agencies where they could post an opening. Employers in some sites were quite satisfied that they were receiving this service, while others reported posting job listings with as many as six different public agencies or schools. Second, most were quite willing to train new hires if they were job ready and reasonably motivated - most said they were not looking for subsidies, just reliable workers, although a few argued for incentives. Many expressed concerns about basic job readiness, i.e., familiarity with the work environment and work ethic, and a few wanted improved screening of participants for substance abuse problems prior to referral. Many expressed satisfaction with the programs and the hires they had made, and a few (typically nursing facilities and sheltered workshops) were actively collaborating with One-Stop partners to link training and employment opportunities for TANF recipients. In one location, employers suggested a performance driven federal block grant available at the local level. In general, employers were well aware of the shortcomings of the child care system -- a few large employers are trying to address this on an in-house, contractual basis, but most felt that the demand for their products and services did not support higher wages or benefits.
11. Milwaukee is a good example of the first of these circumstances, Boston the second, and Renton (Seattle metropolitan area) the third.
12. Testing of abilities includes vocabulary, reading, spelling, language, math, and problem solving. The COPSystem is used to test interests, abilities and work values. Wonderlic tests are also used. Career exploration assessment covers assets and barriers, testing results, program opportunities, labor market opportunities, occupational videos, career counseling and setting employment goals.
13. On a more positive note, the Kenosha County Job Center is located reasonably near to the center of town on a busy arterial, and as we were told by clients, the bus drivers frequently direct job seekers to the Center. However, even in this location, clients complained that the community college was not easily accessible.
14. The "inverted pyramid model" of service delivery refers to the use of technology to provide self-service assistance to the broadest possible set of clients when they first contact or enter the agency, reserving more individualized (and labor intensive) services for those who demonstrate a higher need for more intensive services. This model is often contrasted with the traditional "gatekeeper" model of service delivery, where all clients must first be assessed and then assigned to the right combination of services. The inverted pyramid assumes that many clients are capable of getting what they want or need on their own, while the gatekeeper model tends to waste valuable time and resources screening the access of these clients to the resources they seek.