Moving People from Welfare to Work. Lessons from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies.. The Most Effective Program: What were its distinguishing features?


As already discussed, the most rigorous findings about the relative effectiveness of different program approaches come from the analyses that directly compare the LFA and HCD programs within each site that operated both types of program. Viewed with appropriate skepticism, however, cross-site comparisons can suggest what other program approaches or features are likely to be particularly effective.

As shown in Figure 6, the Portland program by far outperformed the other 10 programs in terms of both the size and consistency over time of its earnings gains (and its employment gains, which are not shown in the figure). The Portland program increased average five-year earnings by 25 percent and the average number of quarters employed by 21 percent. The program also increased stable employment and earnings growth more than any of the other 10 programs.

  • The Portland program's success suggests that the following are key features of very effective programs: an employment focus, the use of both job search and short-term education or training, and an emphasis on holding out for a good job.

Although contextual factors may have contributed to the Portland program's success -- relative to the other NEWWS programs, Portland's worked with a less disadvantaged welfare caseload, and the state had a relatively high minimum wage -- it also differed from the other programs with respect to implementation. The Portland program had a clear employment focus. Unlike the LFA programs and the education-focused programs, however, it used a mixed strategy for matching enrollees to initial activities: Portland staff assigned some to very short-term education or training and others (the majority) to job search. Also, job search participants in Portland, unlike in the other programs, were counseled to wait for a good job (that is, one that paid at least about 25 percent higher than the minimum wage and offered a good chance for stable employment) as opposed to taking the first job they were offered. Although other aspects of the Portland program, such as its use of job developers and the considerable experience of its staff in operating job search programs, also deserve some credit for the program's beneficial effects, these features did not make the program unique in NEWWS. And although Portland's relatively strong economy may have contributed to the success of the program, other NEWWS programs in places where the demand for labor was similarly high did not have equally large earnings or employment impacts.

One implication of the Portland results -- that strongly employment-focused programs with mixed activities are more effective than programs that offer primarily job search or primarily education and training -- is buttressed by findings from previous studies. For example, the Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) program that was run in Riverside, California, in the late 1980s -- widely considered a paragon among welfare-to-work programs -- was also an employment-focused, mixed-strategy program. Operationally, both Portland and Riverside GAIN not only stressed the importance of finding jobs and strictly enforced program participation requirements but also offered many different services, including job search (along with job development), short-term education, and (in Portland) training. In both programs, people who were considered not ready to enter the labor market were sometimes first assigned to basic education or (in Portland) to training or life skills classes.

  • The Portland program's implementation features also suggest how to make education and training in mandatory welfare-to-work programs more effective for instance, by putting an upper limit on the duration of recipients' participation in some types of adult education.

When making initial assignments to education or training activities, Portland program staff communicated to welfare recipients that improving their employability was the goal. The assignments were thus limited in duration, usually lasting 6 months or less, and participants were encouraged to complete them and then look for work rather than to "languish" in them. Decisions about who was not ready to go immediately into job search -- and thus who could be initially assigned to education, training, or other activities -- were left to program staff, who took into consideration a variety of factors that might affect recipients' employability, including work history, educational attainment, and reading and math skills. GED preparation classes, for example, were offered primarily to people who case managers thought had a good chance of obtaining a GED relatively quickly, and the program indeed raised the proportion of people who received a GED over the five years. In addition, the program led to an increase in the percentage of welfare recipients who received both a GED or high school diploma and a trade license or certificate -- a combination that nonexperimental research has suggested is particularly effective in boosting subsequent earnings.

Finally, by partnering with local community colleges to design and operate the Portland program, welfare department administrators probably increased recipients' exposure to postsecondary education. Although Portland staff did not make assignments to college courses as part of the welfare-to-work program, among recipients who entered the study with a high school diploma or GED, the Portland program produced a 21 percentage point increase in the proportion who took a course for credit at a two- or four-year college, a difference that emerged in the second half of the five-year follow-up period. The late appearance of these participation impacts and the fact that assignments to college were not made as part of the program suggest that welfare recipients' exposure to the community college system while they were participating in job search and other welfare-to-work program activities had spillover effects on college course enrollment. Portland was the only NEWWS program to increase college participation, but the timing of its impacts on this outcome makes it highly unlikely that they were related to its large earnings impacts earlier in the follow-up period.