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


A.  Interpreting the Results

To illustrate the magnitude of Portland’s accomplishments, this report makes a number of comparisons.  The primary comparison — to show the net effects or impacts of the program — is between people in the program group and those in the control group.  In addition, Portland’s program is compared with other programs to show the relative effectiveness of Portland’s approach.  Specifically, this summary makes three types of explicit cross­program comparisons:

  • Between Portland’s program and the three work first and three skills­building programs studied in Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and Riverside as part of the NEWWS Evaluation.  (See the accompanying text box for a brief description of the programs in the evaluation.)  Analyses similar to those reported here for Portland have been completed for these six programs; thus, rigorous comparisons can be made and Portland’s place on the work first/skills­building continuum can be estimated.
  • Between Portland’s program and the other 10 programs in the NEWWS Evaluation (which include the three work first and three skills­building programs) on measures for which data have been collected for all programs.  This places Portland in the context of a wide range of welfare­to­work programs.4
  • Between Portland’s program and the Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) program run in Riverside, California, in the late 1980s, which produced very large increases in employment and earnings, and large decreases in welfare receipt, and is often considered the benchmark for other programs.  (This program is distinct from the work first and skills­building programs run in Riverside for the NEWWS Evaluation discussed in the text box.)5

The Other Programs in the National Evaluation
of welfare­to­work Strategies

A key issue in welfare reform throughout the last decade has been how best to move welfare recipients into the workforce, toward self­sufficiency, and out of poverty.  One approach, commonly referred to as the "work first," or "labor force attachment," approach, aims to get people to work quickly, even at low wages, by requiring and helping them to look for work, reflecting a view that welfare recipients can best build their work habits and skills in the workplace.  A second approach emphasizes skills­building, or "human capital development," through education and training as a precursor to employment, based on the belief that an upfront investment in the skills levels of welfare recipients will allow them to obtain higher­paying and more secure jobs.  The program run from early 1993 to mid 1996 in Portland can be considered to be a blend of strong work first elements and moderate skills­building elements.  Most programs across the nation have blended the two approaches, although in response to the 1996 welfare reform law most states are shifting toward a work first approach.

To determine the strengths and limitations of each approach, three of the seven sites studied as part of the NEWWS Evaluation — Atlanta, Georgia; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Riverside, California — simultaneously operated two different programs:  a work first program and a skills­building program.  The goal of the work first programs was rapid employment, and job search was the prescribed first activity for virtually the entire caseload.  In contrast, most people in the skills­building programs were first assigned to education or training; basic education was the most common activity because of the generally low educational attainment of the enrollees at program entry.

In addition to Portland’s program and the six programs discussed above, the NEWWS Evaluation includes four other programs.  In one site — Columbus, Ohio — two different case management approaches were compared side by side.  The study in the other two sites — Detroit, Michigan, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma — tested the net effects of the sites’ welfare­to­work programs (similar to the study in Portland).  The Columbus, Detroit, and Oklahoma City programs primarily utilized a skills­building approach.  In total, the 11 evaluation programs range from strongly work first­focused to strongly skills­building­focused and from somewhat voluntary to highly mandatory.  The program sites offer diverse geographic locations, caseload demographics, labor markets, and AFDC grant levels.  These programs, while not representing all welfare­to­work programs in the nation, represent a wide range of welfare­to­work options.

B.  Sample and Program Environment

The results presented in this report should be considered in the context of Portland’s research sample and program environment.  Compared to the samples in the other NEWWS Evaluation sites, the Portland sample had relatively high prior lifetime employment levels, but average prior recent employment (defined as work in the year before program entry).  More sample members in Portland than in the other sites had a high school diploma or GED at program entry, but the average highest grade completed in school was similar across all the sites (about 11th grade).  Portland’s sample fell in the middle of the range of prior AFDC receipt.  The sample in Portland was predominantly white, non­Hispanic, as is the general population in the Pacific Northwest, minimizing the chances of racial discrimination in the labor market.

AFDC grant levels in Oregon were significantly higher than the national average.  Portland’s labor market was strong, with relatively low unemployment rates, decreasing through most of the follow­up period, and high employment growth.  The caseload and labor market can affect the results of a welfare­to­work program in many ways.  Throughout the summary, these effects will be noted when relevant.