Moving People from Welfare to Work. Lessons from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies.. 2. The Status Quo and the Interventions


As has been documented in many studies, most welfare recipients eventually find jobs, and most do not stay on welfare for long. The challenge for welfare-to-work programs is to improve on these rates of job finding and welfare exit by enabling people to find jobs and leave welfare more quickly, to keep jobs longer and avoid returning to the welfare rolls, or to build their skills while on welfare and then obtain better jobs. A key task of evaluations of such programs is to find out what is the "normal" behavior of welfare recipients over time. Only then is it clear when programs are producing true benefits for people as opposed to leading to levels of employment, earnings, and welfare leaving that would have occurred in any case.

Before examining the outcomes for the control groups in depth, this section opens by briefly summarizing the characteristics of all the adult sample members in NEWWS before they were randomly assigned to the research groups (for their average characteristics, see Table 3). Almost all of them were single women; at the time they entered the study, they were an average of 30 years old and had an average of two children. The majority had at least one child under age 6. (In four of the sites, families could include children as young as age 1; in the other three sites, families could include children as young as 3.) The racial/ethnic makeup of the samples varied from site to site, reflecting the local populations.

One of the most important points to take away from this summary is that, although welfare recipients are a diverse group, a sizeable proportion of them face one or more barriers to steady employment. Among these barriers are a lack of a high school diploma or GED, no recent employment, a long history of welfare receipt, health or emotional problems, a high risk of depression, and a reluctance to leave one's children to go to work. At study entry, about two-fifths of the sample members lacked a high school diploma or GED, having completed an average of slightly less than 10 years of school. These sample members are often referred to here as nongraduates; sample members who had at least one of these credentials are referred to as graduates. A sizeable proportion of people in the sample lacked a work history, had been on welfare for at least five years cumulatively, or both. Slightly more than one-quarter of the sample members reported at study entry that they or a family member had a health or emotional problem. About one-seventh were found to be at high risk of depression. Finally, one-quarter of sample members reported strongly preferring staying home with their children over going to work.

Table 3.
Sample Member's Characteristics at Studay Entry:
Many Welfare Recipients Face Barriers to Steady Employment
SOURCE:  Hamilton et al., 2001; Michalopoulos and Schwarts, 2001.
Demographic characteristics at study entry
Female (%)94.1
Average age (years)30.5
Average number of children1.9
Had at least one child under age 658.4
Barriers to steady employment (%)
Had no high school diploma or GED41.0
Never worked full time for one employer for 6 months or more36.8
Had received welfare cumulatively for 5 years or more33.7
Had health or emotional problems28.0
Was at high risk of depression14.5
Was highly hesitant to leave children to go to work24.7