How Effective Are Different Welfare-to-Work Approaches? Five-Year Adult and Child Impacts for Eleven Programs. A Framework for Understanding Program Results


The FSA gave program administrators a great deal of flexibility in designing the 11 programs studied in the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies. (Box 1.1 provides a comparison of the key features of FSA and TANF.) That flexibility, combined with local economic, political, and funding environments, resulted in 11 programs that vary on several dimensions. This report focuses primarily on one of those dimensions: the self-sufficiency approach used.

Box 1.1
Key Features of the Family Support Act (FSA)/Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA)/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
FSA/AFDC (1988-1996)
  • Entitlement to welfare, no time limit
  • Required participation of single parents with youngest child aged 3 or over (state option: aged 1 or over) in welfare-to-work program activities for an average of 20 hours per week for most welfare recipients; other exemptions included being under age 16 or over age 60, having an incapacitating illness, caring for an ill or incapacitated household member, or living in a remote area where services were not available
  • Expanded previous mix of job search-focused pre-employment services: many programs emphasized skill-building activities
  • Limited per-person funding, given the size of the welfare caseloads
  • Targeted funding to people at risk of long-term welfare receipt

PRWORA/TANF (1996-2002)

  • Time-limited federal support for welfare; block grants to states
  • Requires participation of single parents with youngest child aged 1 or over (state option: even younger) in welfare-to-work program activities for an average of 30 hours per week, including at least 20 hours in actual work or job search; exemption criteria limited and at state discretion
  • Strongly encourages work-focused programs; limited opportunity for skill-building activities
  • Added funding and even more flexibility: many programs add post-employment services and stronger financial incentives to work
  • No targeting among recipients

While the overarching goal of programs in the past 30 years  to foster the self-sufficiency of welfare recipients through increased employment and decreased welfare receipt  has not changed, there has been disagreement on how best to move individuals from welfare to work. One strategy emphasizes quick employment, reflecting the belief that individuals can best build their employability and improve their skills, eventually achieving self-sufficiency, through actual work, even if their initial jobs are minimum wage and without fringe benefits. The other strategy emphasizes initial investments in short-term education and, in some cases, training, reflecting the view that these investments will eventually enable individuals to obtain higher-wage, longer-lasting jobs with health insurance coverage. Most programs have blended the two strategies and emphasized elements of both. Past research has shown that a program's location on the continuum between these two strategies and the mix of services it provides to enrollees can have an effect on the patterns and magnitude of program impacts measured in the short and long term.(2)

The programs in this report have been categorized by their approach: either employment-focused or education-focused. Three sites in the evaluation (Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and Riverside) simultaneously implemented a Labor Force Attachment (LFA) program and a Human Capital Development (HCD) program, versions of employment-focused and education-focused programs that magnified the differences between the two types of approaches. The six programs in these three sites provide the best test of the relative effectiveness of the two approaches.(3) Another site, Columbus, was also asked to implement two different programs in a head-to-head test. One program used an "integrated case management" staffing structure, in which one worker assumes responsibility for both eligibility and employment and training for her clients. The other program used a "traditional case management" staffing structure, in which separate workers handle the eligibility and employment and training duties. These programs, called the Columbus Integrated and Traditional programs, both used an education-focused approach.(4) Program administrators in the other three sites chose which self-sufficiency approach to implement based on their own goals. Of the 11 programs studied, four programs (Atlanta LFA, Grand Rapids LFA, Riverside LFA, and Portland) were employment-focused; the remaining seven were education-focused.

In the three LFA versions of the employment-focused program, almost all enrollees were first assigned to job search. In Portland, the other employment-focused program, many, but not all, individuals were assigned to job search as a first activity. Some individuals, usually those who were determined to have more barriers to work than other members of the caseload, were first assigned to education or training activities. In the three HCD education-focused programs, as well as in the four other education-focused programs, almost all individuals were first assigned to either education or occupational skills training activities.

This report also focuses on another program implementation dimension: mandatoriness. Past research suggests that the degree to which a program enforces a participation mandate for the welfare caseload is a determinant of whether a program can have an effect.(5) High or low enforcement of the mandate is a product of three factors: how wide a cross section of the welfare caseload is enrolled in a program; how closely a program monitors individuals' participation; and how swiftly and consistently a program imposes financial sanctions (that is, reductions in monthly welfare grants) on those who do not participate. Nine of the programs were high enforcement programs; Detroit and Oklahoma City were not, mostly because of limited program and staff resources.

Table 1.1 categorizes the 11 programs according to their self-sufficiency approach and level of enforcement of the participation mandate. Section IV of this chapter discusses in greater detail these dimensions of the programs, as well as others that may have affected program impacts. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these program categorizations and descriptions apply to these particular programs as they would have been experienced by evaluation sample members in their first three years of follow-up. In the years corresponding to sample members' fourth and fifth years of follow-up, some of the programs changed their approach (in response to TANF). Section V of this chapter describes these changes.

Table 1.1
NEWWS Programs, Categorized by Approach, First Activity, and Enforcement Level
Employment-focused approach Education-focused approach

Job search first

Varied first activity Education or training first

High enforcement

High enforcement High enforcement Low enforcement
Atlanta LFA
Grand Rapids LFA
Riverside LFA
Portland Atlanta HCD
Grand Rapids HCD
Riverside HCD
Columbus Integrated
Columbus Traditional
Oklahoma City

NOTES: LFA = Labor Force Attachment program. HCD = Human Capital Development program.