Implementation of the Welfare-to-Work Grants Program. A. Participant Assessment

08/01/2002

Programs serving welfare recipients routinely include some type of client assessment, but there is great variation in formality and intensity. In some programs assessments are an integral component of case management and service planning; in others, assessment primarily is used to determine whether an individual is employable and subject to mandatory work requirements. The simplest assessments consist of staff completing screening sheets to document a client's employment history or need for child care or other services. More formal tests and assessment instruments are administered to clients to measure basic skills, cognitive development, occupational interests, and other dimensions.

Study programs assess participants for at least three reasons: to establish WtW eligibility, determine an appropriate service strategy (including referrals), and explore employment potential. The primary areas of assessment are basic reading and math skills, personal and career goals, and barriers to employment. WtW providers use a combination of formal testing, structured interviews, and ongoing case management to assess the clients' overall employability and monitor progress in achieving goals. Every study site has some formal assessment activity (Table IV.1).

 

Table IV.1
Summary of Formal WtW Assessment Activities
Site/Program Basic Skills Testing Other Assessment
Boston

X

Career interest inventory
Tuberculosis test
Substance abuse screening
Chicago    
EES

X

Substance abuse screening
Operation ABLE

X

Criminal background check
Substance abuse screening
MAXIMUS

X

 
Catholic Charities

X

Substance abuse screening
Easter Seals

X

Tests of work motivation, vocational interest, job search and employment knowledge
Substance abuse screening
SCJ

X

 
Suburban Job Link

 

Substance abuse screening
Pyramid

X

Criminal background check
Substance abuse screening
Goodwill

X

Computerized assessment of educational /vocational needs and interests
DESI

X

 
Inner Voice

X

 
Fort Worth    
Women's Center

X (TANF Agency)

 
Arlington Night Shelter

X (TANF Agency)

Screen for learning disabilities; career interest inventory
Substance abuse screening
Goodwill Industries

X

Extensive battery of tests for those with severe barriers to employment
Indiana-RVR

X

 
Milwaukee

X (TANF Agency)

Assessment of barriers to employment and occupational interests
Substance abuse screening
Nashville

X (TANF Agency)

 
Philadelphia-TWC

X

 
Phoenix

X

 
WestVirginia-HRDF

X (Usually TANF Agency)

Work interest, interest aptitude
Substance abuse screening
Yakima

X (Employment Services Department)

 
Johns Hopkins University

varies

ACCUVision- video-based skills assessment
Career Transcript competency tests
Source: Process Analysis site visits.

 

Basic Skills Testing. The original WtW eligibility provisions required grantees to serve individuals with specific problems affecting employment, including persons with less than a high school education and low basic skills. It is, therefore, not surprising that all study programs routinely include in their assessments the results of some type of basic skills test to determine reading and mathematics ability level. The most common instrument is the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), used in at least eight study sites. Other tests include the Job Corps Math and Reading Test, the Wide Ranging Abilities Test (WRAT), and the Adult Basic Learning Examination (ABLE). In at least five of the study sites, initial testing is conducted by the TANF agency and used for WtW eligibility determination prior to referral.

While testing is primarily conducted to determine eligibility (i.e., to determine whether an individual falls into the 70 percent eligibility category), some WtW programs also use the results to tailor services to the specific needs of individuals (e.g., to help develop individual service plans or employment development plans). In a few sites, testing is done at multiple points, and serves different purposes. Up-front testing is used to determine eligibility for WtW, but then further testing may be done when an individual begins a specific program component or is being considered for a particular job or training course.

Assessment of Personal and Career Goals. Participant assessment extends well beyond testing basic skills, and often also includes assessment of personal and career goals. In the study programs, this type of assessment is aimed at obtaining information that can be used to tailor the wide range of services available under WtW to each individual's employment barriers, career goals, and service needs. Each program in the study developed its own approach, including: adapting assessment forms, determining the sequence of steps involved in assessment, and deciding whether standardized tests or more subjective methods are used to assess capabilities and needs. Generally, participants complete career and interest assessment forms themselves, although program staff typically contribute significantly to the assessment process, helping participants to carefully think through their goals, assess personal strengths and weaknesses, and structure individual service plans.

Programs that offer training or work opportunities in specific industries or firms assess participant aptitude, interest, and other factors required by employers (e.g., behavioral characteristics) in order to determine appropriate placements or referrals. For example, Pyramid Partnership, Inc., a WtW program in Chicago, operates an employer-driven program that refers participants for entry-level training and unsubsidized jobs in retail, hospitality, and banking. Assessment at Pyramid includes a behavioral screen for work readiness which assesses motivation, social skills, and ability to get along with fellow workers. As part of the assessment process, the Pyramid case manager looks for potential barriers to employment and tries to determine if the individual would be a good match with a particular employer. In Boston, the WtW assessment is tailored to the types of requirements, including personal behavior and attitudinal factors, specified by each firm involved with one of the employer partnership programs.

Assessment of Barriers to Employment. An important part of the assessment process centers on the identification of specific barriers to employment. In all study sites, participants are routinely assessed for support service needs, such as child care, housing assistance, and transportation. Information is typically collected through one-on-one interviews designed to identify a wide range of barriers that could make working difficult. The most common barriers considered are lack of a driver's license, lack of an automobile, and other transportation-related problems; inadequate or unavailable child care; substance abuse or mental health problems; and family problems (such as having to care for a sick or disabled family member).

Both WtW and TANF staff in the study sites report that they are increasingly aware of the need to identify some of the more serious of these personal problems, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, and domestic violence. Screening for these problems is also motivated by federal policies, such as those that allow domestic violence victims special exemptions from TANF work requirements, and the original WtW eligibility criteria that specified substance abuse as a barrier to consider in qualifying an individual in the 70 percent eligibility category.

Substance abuse problems and mental health needs are generally identified through informal screening methods, although some programs use formal tests and instruments. In most of the study sites, WtW or TANF staff informally screen for substance abuse and mental health concerns, generally by asking clients whether they have a problem with drugs or alcohol. In five sites (Boston, Chicago, Fort Worth, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia-TWC), at least some of the WtW programs conduct formal screening for substance abuse problems, either using a structured set of questions (such as those on the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory) or by urinalysis. WtW programs with linkages to substance abuse treatment facilities or that have employer partners that require drug testing are particularly likely to conduct formal drug screening.

Formal assessments are also used in some WtW programs, primarily to help identify appropriate treatment options for individuals who may have mental health, substance abuse, or other disabilities. For example, Goodwill programs funded under WtW grants in Fort Worth and Boston have strong vocational rehabilitation services and offer psychological or behavioral testing on-site. Several of the many programs funded by the WtW grant in Chicago use various behavioral and diagnostic screening tools to help develop individualized plans for clients that include employment preparation as well as treatment and counseling. The Arlington Night Shelter, a WtW provider in Fort Worth, uses the Washington State Screen for Learning Disabilities.

Both WtW and TANF staff report that they are increasingly aware of domestic violence issues. Many of the TANF and WtW programs include discussions of domestic violence and child abuse issues as part of their orientation sessions or job search workshops. In several of the study sites, TANF staff can refer welfare recipients to experts on domestic violence issues who are located in the TANF office. In some states, such as Massachusetts and Illinois, computerized TANF intake systems include special screens with questions for identifying domestic violence service needs as well as other needs such as mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Ongoing Assessment. Although the assessment process is initiated during intake, all the study programs emphasize ongoing assessment and monitoring of participants throughout their involvement in the program. In all of the study programs, the individual one-on-one interaction between the participant and a staff person is the main method for assessing needs and employability. Staff, usually referred to as counselors or case managers, are assigned a certain number of participants for whom they are responsible. Often, an employment development or individual services plan is developed for each participant, much like a contract between the agency and the participant, setting out short- and long-term goals, steps participants are expected to take in realizing these goals, and types of services to be made available to the participant. The case manager provides or adjusts services or makes external referrals as needed.

One variation on this general approach involves intensive monitoring of a participant's progress towards the ultimate goal of economic self-sufficiency. For example, the Nashville WtW program, built upon the Pathways model developed under Project Match in Chicago, encourages participants to take "small steps" towards independence, and holds regular monthly peer support groups and individualized self-assessment as well as ongoing reassessment of progress. The steps can include achieving personal or family goals, community activities, soft skills (attitude, motivation, self-esteem), basic education, and ultimately skills development and employment. Once an individual becomes employed, the counselor prepares an annual status report based on periodic and continuous contact and intervention as needed. In Chicago, the WtW-funded program operated by Catholic Charities also incorporates dimensions of the Pathways model for participants with serious employment barriers and substance abuse problems.

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