Implementation, Participation Patterns, Costs, and Two-Year Impacts of the Portland (Oregon) Welfare-to-Work Program: Executive Summary. Findings on Program Implementation and Participation

05/01/1998

  • Portland’s program was designed and implemented through an unusually strong partnership between the welfare department and various local service providers, including the local community colleges, chambers of commerce, JTPA agencies, the state Employment Department, and others.  Program services were of high quality.

Although state legislators and administrators defined the basic parameters of Oregon’s welfare­to­work program, each district in the state was given the freedom to implement the program as it saw fit.  The Portland area welfare offices designed the program in cooperation with local community agencies; major budgeting and programming decisions were reached jointly. 

Job search, education, training, and work experience services were provided by the local community colleges (with job search provided by the chambers of commerce in one study county), under contract with the welfare agency, and case management services were provided by both the welfare agency and the community colleges.  Field researchers and program participants rated Portland’s program services highly compared to services in other programs.

  • People active in the program were assigned to "integrated" case managers responsible for both welfare eligibility and employment, training, and social services.  The integrated staff were often supplemented by case managers employed by the community colleges.  Caseload sizes were at the low end of the 11 programs in the NEWWS Evaluation.

In Portland, integrated case managers, employed by the welfare department, were responsible for all aspects of program participants’ cases and had sole authority for all decisions, such as making activity referrals, authorizing support services, and imposing financial penalties for program noncompliance.  In many instances, case managers employed by the community colleges worked in cooperation with the integrated staff and helped recommend services, checked up on attendance, and provided quick intervention if problems in attendance or progress arose.

  • Portland’s program was focused on employment; however, rather than urging people to take "any" jobs (the approach typical of most work first programs), staff encouraged people to seek and accept "good" jobs — full­time jobs paying more than minimum wage with benefits and potential for advancement.

The primary goal of Portland’s program was to move people into the labor market.  For applicants, the employment message was apparent even before they entered the program:  at AFDC application, people were assigned to an initial work search activity to be completed prior to the welfare­to­work program orientation, which took place about a month later.  (Since this initial activity occurred prior to random assignment, which took place in conjunction with orientation sessions, any effects it may have had are not reflected in the program group/control group differences discussed in this report.)  Among post­orientation activities, job search (including job club and other job search activities) was the one most commonly assigned and utilized.  Program staff told people in all activities, including education and training, that their goal should be to achieve self­sufficiency through paid work.

Job club, job development, and job placement activities in Portland were particularly well supported.  Full­time job developers used various methods to link participants to job opportunities, such as working closely with employers to discover unadvertised openings and sending them flyers "advertising" their linking service.  Other staff worked to connect program group members with existing leads through the state Employment Department.

Portland also had an individualized work experience component in which program staff custom­designed work experience positions based on people’s skills and interests.  Positions were in both nonprofit organizations and for­profit companies.  (Participation was voluntary in the for­profit work slots.)  Staff reported that many work experience positions led to unsubsidized jobs.

In Portland, "good" jobs, rather than "any" jobs, were considered the preferable path to self­sufficiency.  One standard used to measure the welfare district’s and service providers’ performance was an average wage­of­placement that was always much higher than the minimum wage (for example, in 1994 Oregon’s minimum wage was $4.75 and the average wage­of­placement target was $6.00).  Another standard concerned "AFDC recidivism" — the percentage of individuals who returned to the welfare rolls — and encouraged staff to promote jobs that were likely to last.  If a service provider’s performance was more than 20 percent below any of the standards in a quarter, provider and welfare staff were required to write a corrective plan describing how they would meet the standard in the future; ultimately the provider risked losing its contract with the welfare department.  (During the follow­up period for this report, standards­related issues did not lead to written corrective plans or loss of contracts by providers.)  Job developers actively sought positions that paid above the minimum wage and provided room for advancement.  Some staff did not discourage participants from accepting low­paying jobs, but usually only when there was potential for advancement.  It is important to note that "good" jobs would probably have been more difficult to develop and find in a poor economy, and a more disadvantaged caseload would have been less able to be selective when choosing work.

  • The Portland program used a mixed services strategy:  most people participated in job search, but many also participated in short­term education, vocational training, work experience, and life skills training.

There was no single uniform path through the program.  Although Portland aimed to move people into the labor market, at one­on­one meetings directly following program orientation, case managers evaluated some people  — based on a confluence of factors including work history, educational status, and reading and math skills — as not ready to go immediately into job search.  During the period studied, about half of first activity assignments were to job search and half were to other activities (over time, an increasing proportion of people were first assigned to job search).  Some people who completed job search without finding work subsequently took part in education or training, and many people who first participated in a non­job search activity subsequently participated in job search (if they remained on the welfare rolls).  Activities were especially varied for those who entered the program without a high school diploma or GED certificate, with many participating in basic education.

The goal of education, training, and work experience activities was to prepare individuals relatively quickly for unsubsidized employment; thus, Portland staff encouraged short­term participation.  Program group members who took part in program activities participated for about five months over the two­year follow­up, similar to the average length of stay in the three work first programs in the NEWWS Evaluation and shorter than the average length of stay in the three skills­building programs.

  • Many people were not assigned by a case manager to a program activity, although the program worked with at least some individuals traditionally defined as the most disadvantaged.

About one­third of program group members were not assigned to an activity in the three months following random assignment.  During this period, about half of these nonassigned individuals were "deferred" from participation by a case manager; most others became nonmandatory for the program because they left AFDC or experienced a status change such as pregnancy.  Most of those initially deferred were never assigned to an activity during the two­year follow­up (although case managers encouraged many of these people to seek services outside the program, such as remedial education or mental health counseling).

During field research, case managers reported that people with very low skills, serious physical or mental health problems, or exceptionally low motivation levels often were not referred to program activities.  However, as mentioned, Portland’s program produced employment and AFDC impacts for all subgroups of the sample, including the most disadvantaged portion of the caseload, defined using education, employment, and AFDC receipt indicators (as noted below, the program increased participation for this group).  Thus, while case managers were somewhat selective in whom they assigned to activities, they were, in fact, working with at least some of those who are traditionally viewed, according to objective measures, as the most disadvantaged portion of the caseload.

  • Compared to what would have happened in the absence of a welfare­to­work program, Portland’s program dramatically increased participation in job search and, to a lesser extent, increased participation in basic education, vocational training or college, and work experience.

Control group members’ level of self­initiated activity represents what would have happened if program group members had had no exposure to Portland’s welfare­to­work program.  As Figure 1 shows, most control group participation was in basic education and vocational training or college.  Program group members were seven times more likely to engage in job search than their control group counterparts during the two­year follow­up period (for the program group, this "job search" measure included some participation in life skills training classes, which covered issues such as career exploration, résumé preparation, time management, and problem­solving).  Program group members were also more likely to participate in basic education, including GED preparation classes, vocational training or college, and work experience.

The program substantially increased participation in activities for a broad cross section of the caseload — both those with a high school diploma or GED ("graduates") and those without ("nongraduates"), and the most disadvantaged.

  • Overall, Portland’s program was strongly mandatory.  Sanctioning rates were high compared to rates in programs run in the 1980s, but fall in the middle of the range of rates for the six 1990s work first and skills­building programs in Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and Riverside studied as part of the NEWWS Evaluation.

Staff closely monitored those assigned to or engaged in program activities.  Most Portland staff tried to encourage participation and compliance with program requirements using positive encouragement, emphasizing the potential benefits for the individual and her family.  If, after lengthy cajoling, people did not eventually comply, staff imposed financial sanctions (AFDC grant reductions).  Twenty­one percent of program group members were sanctioned during the two­year follow­up period and the average sanction lasted about five months.  In the six programs run in Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and Riverside, sanction rates ranged from 9 to 42 percent and sanctions lasted for an average of eight months.

Figure 1: Rates of Participation by Program or Control Group Status.