Implementing Welfare Reform Requirements for Teenage Parents: Lessons from Experience in Four States . Implementation Lessons


The four study states had all been operating under their school attendance policies for more than a year at the time of our site visits. Their experiences illustrate several important lessons for other states that are implementing school attendance requirements.

A range of education options, including GED programs, are important for meeting the educational needs of teenage parents.

Implementing a meaningful school attendance requirement for teenage parents requires a broad range of alternatives to regular public education programs leading to a high school diploma. GED programs are an important part of the mix. Staff responsible for working with teenage parents to administer school attendance requirements in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts emphasized that teenage parents face obstacles to remaining enrolled and attending school every day. Responsibilities of child-rearing, lack of support from families and friend for their efforts to stay in school, and their own immaturity all can make it difficult for teenage parents to stay in school. Moreover, many teenage parents had fallen behind grade level or dropped out of school before they became parents. Thus, staff who worked with teenage parents perceived that returning to a regular high school program was not a suitable placement for many teenage parents receiving welfare.

Research evidence supports the view that GED programs and other alternative education options should play a prominent role in efforts to helping teenage parents complete a high school diploma or equivalent. In Ohio's demonstration of LEAP, researchers found that a school attendance requirement for teenage parents receiving cash assistance was effective in increasing regular school and GED program attendance, but that it did not increase rates of graduation with a regular high school diploma (Long et al. 1996). LEAP improved rates of GED attainment among students who were still in school when the demonstration started, although it produced no similar improvement for teenage parents who had already dropped out of school. Thus, GED programs played a role in LEAP, enabling some teenage parents who would not have achieved any high school credential to achieve at least a GED.

A study of demonstration programs designed to improve the high school completion of at-risk students reached similar conclusions (Dynarski et al. 1997). The demonstration included some programs that offered a GED and some that provided alternative high school programs, in which students work toward a high school diploma in modified, more intensive programs. The study found that many at-risk students and school dropouts entered GED programs from alternative high schools. Furthermore, GED programs increased attainment of a high school equivalency. In contrast, alternative high school programs did not improve high school completion. The researchers hypothesized that the GED programs were more successful because they were self-paced, had clear objectives, and could be completed relatively quickly.

Earning a GED may not be a good substitute for completing a high school diploma. Evidence indicates that completion of a GED (without further education beyond it) contributes less to future earnings capacity than does completion of a high school diploma (Cameron and Heckman 1993). Even so, for young people who do not complete high school, a GED is better than no high school credential at all (Murnane et al. 1995).

Directly funding GED programs for teenage parents helps ensure that suitable school placements are available.

State welfare agencies in two study states (Massachusetts and Arizona) directly fund GED programs for teenage parents. Through its Young Parents Program (YPP), Massachusetts's Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) directly funds GED programs throughout the state that serve young parents (age 14 to 21) who receive cash assistance. In early 1997, approximately 20 percent of Massachusetts's teenage parents receiving cash assistance were enrolled in a YPP-sponsored GED program. Arizona funds GED programs on a more limited scale, primarily in Phoenix.

In contrast, the California Department of Social Services does not pay for such programs. Cal Learn clients may enroll in adult education programs leading to a GED, but Cal Learn's financial incentive system discourages this option. Because GED programs do not provide interim reports on progress, a Cal Learn client enrolled in a GED program cannot qualify for an interim bonus unless the program is willing to establish a system for measuring interim progress. Cal Learn staff perceived that this feature discouraged Cal Learn clients' use of GED programs. Clients can avoid a sanction by attending a GED program regularly, and they qualify for the $500 completion bonus if they achieve a GED certificate.

Staff we spoke with in California had different perceptions than staff in Massachusetts and Arizona about the availability of adequate educational opportunities for teenage parents. Cal Learn staff reported difficulty finding enough good placements for their clients; they felt that many teenage parents chose "independent study" through their high schools, in part because too few spaces in educational programs tailored to the needs of young parents were available. Staff in Massachusetts and Arizona generally reported that education opportunities were adequate to ensure that teenage parents can find a suitable program. It is likely that the difference in staff perceptions in Arizona and Massachusetts, compared with California, is due, at least in part, to differences in the availability of GED programs and the differing incentives to use these programs.

GED programs designed specifically for teenage parents can incorporate program elements that address their special needs.

Not only can GED programs for teenage parents provide education, they can also directly address some of the barriers that interfere with school attendance and completion. For example, the Maricopa Center for Adolescent Parents, in Phoenix, Arizona, incorporates life skills and parenting education in its GED program for teenage parents, in addition to offering on-site child care. Staff work with mothers to help them become more comfortable about leaving their babies in the care of other adults. Resources are available for identifying developmental problems of the babies and intervening with professional assistance. Maricopa Center staff emphasized the importance of establishing a safe atmosphere in which the teenage parents can meet clear expectations and draw support from staff and peers.

Massachusetts' Young Parent Programs provides both educational activities and life skills training, as well as counseling and case management. Educational activities include GED preparation classes, remedial adult basic education classes, and job readiness and job skills classes. Life skills classes cover such topics as the health and nutrition of the young mother and her child, child development, good parenting skills, and family planning.

Choosing the focus of case management involves trade-offs among different program goals and costs.

Implementing a school attendance requirement requires a system for gathering information about the attendance of individual teenage parents and, if attendance is unsatisfactory, acting on this information. In addition, programs can provide varying levels of support in helping teenage parents overcome the barriers they face to persevering in school, such as child care, counseling, proactive assistance in problem solving and meeting the needs of the young mother and her child.

In the three study states that identified teenage parents and offered special services for them, we observed three distinct approaches:

  1. Using the JOBS program case management approach for teenage parents (in Arizona)
  2. Placing responsibility for case management and income maintenance functions with specialized eligibility workers responsible for all aspects of the teenage parent's case (in Massachusetts)
  3. Instituting an intensive case management system that provides personal support and assistance in securing a broad array of health care, housing, and other services in addition to those most directly associated with welfare agency concerns (in California and parts of Arizona)

The key difference among these approaches lies in the intensity of case management. At 65 to 80 cases per case manager, case management for teenage parents in Massachusetts is less intensive than in California but more intensive than has been observed in other programs serving teenage parents. For example, case managers in the Teenage Parent Demonstration generally had caseloads nearly twice the Massachusetts level. The case management provided in Cal Learn and through Arizona's contract with the city of Phoenix is even more intensive than that offered in Massachusetts, with only 25 to 40 cases per case manager. These different approaches to case management involve important trade-offs among (1) the level of personal support that can be provided, (2) the types of staff backgrounds required to provide case management, (3) administrative complexity, and (4) costs.

Intensive case management can provide a high level of support, but it can be expensive and requires a different mix of staff skills.

Following the standards for case management of teenage parents established by the California Department of Health, Cal Learn case managers give priority to a broad assessment of needs for health care, housing, and other services, including education. Case managers also place priority on finding the services necessary to address these needs, on monitoring receipt of these services, and on building a long-term relationship with the teenage parent.

This type of case management requires background and skills that differ from those of eligibility workers and, to some extent, from those of JOBS case managers. It also requires small caseloads per case manager. The agencies providing Cal Learn case management in the two California counties we visited were health care providers--in one case, a private organization and, in another, the county health department. Individual case managers came from diverse backgrounds in health, mental health, social work, and related human service fields. In both agencies, case managers were supervised by master's-level social workers. The YFC program in Phoenix, Arizona, uses an approach to case management similar to Cal Learn's, although it is not operated by an organization providing health care.

The mix of staff skills needed for intensive case management can be obtained by contracting with a separate agency. In Cal Learn, contracting for case management on a broad scale brought with it the necessity to build collaboration between organizations with differing philosophies around missions. More important, it introduced the need to establish methods of communicating information among staff who performed key functions. County welfare agency eligibility workers issued grants and paid for support services, while county welfare agency GAIN staff retained formal responsibility for making recommendations on sanctions and bonuses. Cal Learn case managers worked directly with teenage parents. Substantial staff effort was necessary to develop smoothly functioning procedures initially and make the communications system work on an ongoing basis. Each of the two counties we visited relied heavily on a complex, paper-based system to achieve the necessary communication of information about individual clients. Coordination and information flow were simpler in the YFC program in Phoenix, due to the program's much smaller size and to the automated data system in place to support case management. The small caseloads, specialized staff skills, and need to communicate across organizations are important costs to take into account when considering intensive case management.

Agencies conducting case management through AFDC and JOBS systems can build directly on existing staffing and data management systems.

The Massachusetts and Arizona programs illustrate two approaches to incorporating teenage parent school attendance requirements into existing procedures. Because Arizona's program to require school attendance by teenage parents operated through its JOBS program, the existing case management system required almost no modification. The primary change was that eligibility workers referred teenage parents between 13 and 15 who were not attending school to the JOBS program as mandatory participants. (Teenage parents 16 and older had been subject to these requirements for several years under JOBS and AFDC rules.)

Massachusetts chose to concentrate all case management functions, including administration of the cash grant, with teen specialists who work exclusively with cases involving a teenage parent. Placing all functions with one worker eliminated the need to make sure information moved from one staff member to another. Specialization also enabled managers to place responsibility for working with teenage parents on staff who welcomed the challenge. It also enabled each eligibility worker to develop a strong working knowledge of the special rules pertaining to teenage parents, as well as knowledge of supportive services available to assist them.

Adopting the approach used in Massachusetts requires flexibility among staff in taking on new responsibilities, care in delineating teen specialists' responsibilities, and training to allow staff to handle new responsibilities. For example, at the time of our visit in early 1997, teen specialists were taking on the responsibility of making annual home visits to monitor teenage parents. Even with lower caseloads than their colleagues who performed income maintenance tasks for other cases, some Massachusetts teen specialists still expressed frustration that they had to limit their involvement in problem solving and the supportive aspects of case management. It is important that policymakers and program managers choose the level and type of case management they want to provide, to ensure that staff have the training and time needed to perform their functions effectively.

Programs must address teenage parents' reluctance to use child care.

Staff reported that child care funding and slots were adequate to meet the expressed need among teenage parents and that the availability of child care was seldom a barrier to attending school. However, teenage parents are often reluctant to use child care. Staff in all states and local offices visited for the study reported that many teenage parents do not like to use formal child care arrangements and prefer to rely on relatives for care. As one case manager put it, many teenage parents believe that good mothers do not leave their babies with strangers. Staff also said that most teenage parents are not well-informed consumers of child care; thus, they are insecure about judging the quality of care and asserting their rights as consumers. Several staff in each state mentioned recent stories in the media that drew attention to abuses in child care centers and informal child care homes, noting that this media attention increased the reluctance of teenage parents to use formal child care.

Even when assistance is readily available, child care issues can affect attendance and young parents' schooling decisions.

Staff raised several concerns about the way child care issues affect implementation of a school attendance requirement. A GED program administrator in Massachusetts noted that, since sanctioning for poor attendance leads to the loss of child care assistance for the month in which the sanction is assessed, a teenage parent can lose her spot at a desirable day care facility. The loss of child care, in turn, impedes her return to school and, thus, her ability to have the sanction lifted.

Several staff noted that children of teenage parents tend to have more health problems than other infants, leading to frequent school absences for some teenage parents who must stay home with sick children. Others reported that teenage parents tend to prefer family day care over day care centers and that family day care tends to be less reliable and stable than center care. Care provided in informal child care homes may be temporarily unavailable (if the provider is sick or has a personal emergency), or permanently unavailable (if the provider decides to pursue another occupation).

Teenage parents' attitudes about child care, coupled with the reluctance of some schools to have parents attend regular school programs, may cause some teenage parents to select schooling options that are not in their best interest. For example, Cal Learn staff said that, while many public schools do not like to enroll teenage parents in their regular school programs, these schools do not have suitable alternative programs to meet the needs of all teenage parents. The schools then encourage teenage parents to pursue independent study. Furthermore, many teenage parents favor independent study because it requires no child care and avoids conflicts with family members or boyfriends who think young mothers should not be attending school. Case managers view the selection of independent study as harmful because it reinforces the young mother's isolation and discourages her efforts to find support systems outside her home that will help sustain her efforts to complete school.

Monitoring attendance increases welfare agency staff workload, sometimes substantially.

Monitoring school attendance can require substantial time from case managers serving teenage parents. Staff in Arizona did not consider workload associated with attendance monitoring a major issue, because teenage parents who were enrolled in school at their last case redetermination (a substantial fraction of teenage parents) are monitored only every six months through the normal redetermination process. Teenage parents who are dropouts at redetermination are monitored through the normal JOBS process for other JOBS-mandatory participants.

In California, the staffing requirements for Cal Learn case management were recognized explicitly: caseloads of Cal Learn case managers may not exceed 40 clients, to ensure that Cal Learn agencies can provide the full range of services outlined in the AFLP case management standards. Monitoring school progress is just one of many tasks (albeit a time-consuming one) Cal Learn case managers are asked to perform.

Moreover, integrating into the workloads of case managers the notification requirements associated with monitoring report cards and communications with the welfare agency to change grants posed challenges for the Cal Learn program. Case managers in both California counties visited for the study initially found the paperwork requirements of the welfare system formidable. To alleviate the case managers' clerical burden, managers in both counties have, to varying degrees, moved responsibility for tracking cases, sending forms to clients, and entering data into computer systems away from case managers and into a separate administrative support unit.

In Massachusetts, state welfare staff have explicitly recognized the additional work inherent in implementing the school attendance requirement. They have created specialized eligibility workers (teen specialists) with smaller caseloads who work exclusively with teenage parent cases. Teen specialists have caseloads of 65 to 80, compared with 110 cases for other eligibility workers. State-level staff indicated that teen specialists' caseloads were reduced in recognition of the additional work associated with enforcing the attendance requirement. This suggests that monitoring school attendance and all the attendant activities is viewed as increasing the work per case by roughly 50 percent.

In Virginia, the school attendance monitoring was designed so that state welfare staff would provide each school district with a list of school-age children receiving cash assistance, and the school district would provide the local welfare agency with a list of students who were truant. Developing workable procedures at the local level has been a continuing challenge, and the process continues to require substantial local staff time. In principle, Virginia's schools report to the county welfare agency those students who are truant. In practice, it is difficult for schools to distinguish between students who are briefly absent and those who have serious attendance problems. In one large district, welfare agency staff found that many students reported as truant by the school district were briefly absent for illness. Thus, following up on cases listed as truant by the school district has required significant staff time for the local welfare agency.

Monitoring attendance through the AFDC and JOBS structure can lead to delays in discovering that a young parent has dropped out.

Although conducting case management for teenage parents through the AFDC and JOBS program structure (as is done in Arizona) offers many advantages, it appears to have some drawbacks as well. The school attendance of a teenage parent enrolled in school is monitored every six months at case redetermination. If a teenage parent drops out of school, the eligibility worker most likely would not learn about the change until the next periodic case redetermination, perhaps as much as six months later. Upon learning of the change, the eligibility worker would refer the teenage parent to JOBS as a mandatory participant. In this monitoring system, many months could elapse between the point at which the teenage parent leaves school and the time when a JOBS case manager begins to work with the teenage parent. Monthly monitoring of all teenage parents without a diploma, including those enrolled at their last review (as in Massachusetts), eliminates this potential delay. Even with monthly reporting, however, some Massachusetts staff reported that they were concerned that too much time could pass before they learned of an attendance problem.

Monitoring attendance can complicate the relationship between welfare agencies and schools.

Most local welfare agencies and school districts have not worked together previously. Establishing working relationships posed substantial challenges in Virginia's Learnfare program. As in many states, local school districts in Virginia operate with a great deal of autonomy. State welfare officials reported that some school districts initially objected to monitoring compliance with Learnfare. In implementing attendance monitoring at the local level, the welfare agency had to address resistance stemming from schools' belief that monitoring was not germane to their basic mission, burdens on school staff, technical difficulties stemming from lack of computer experience, and concerns about privacy.

Making teenage parents responsible for reporting reduces the burden on schools.

Both Massachusetts and Virginia instituted regular monthly attendance reporting as part of implementing their school attendance requirements. In Massachusetts, staff reported that the process worked smoothly. In Virginia, staff reported difficulties making the process work. We suspect that the smoother operation in Massachusetts may have resulted from (1) limiting the reporting requirement to a smaller segment of the cash assistance caseload (that is, only teenage parents and not all school-age minors), and (2) placing the responsibility for securing the attendance report on the student. Both factors significantly reduced the burden placed directly on schools. California's approach to implementing school progress monitoring eliminated the reporting burden on schools completely by relying on report cards and making it the teenage parent's responsibility to provide these to the Cal Learn case manager.

A significant fraction of teenage parents received sanctions.

We examined the sanctioning experiences of a sample of teenage parents in each study state over a one-year period. We found that, over the course of a year, about 20 percent of cases with a teenage parent statewide in Arizona were sanctioned at least once, and 22 percent of teenage parents in two offices in Massachusetts were sanctioned. Sanctioning rates were lower in Virginia (about 11 percent, statewide) and higher in California (about 48 percent, in the two study counties).

While it appears that sanctions were imposed on substantial percentages of teenage parents, we cannot readily assess the extent to which sanctions had the intended effect of persuading clients to attend school. Staff in Virginia and California generally felt the financial incentives were small and had little effect on clients. In contrast, staff in Arizona and Massachusetts, where sanctions could result in termination of the grant, generally felt that the sanctions carried more weight with clients. Data from Massachusetts suggest that sanctions may have had the desired effect. Of the cases that closed due to a sanction for poor attendance, roughly half reopened within a few months, suggesting that loss of the grant may have led some teenage parents to return to school.