Moving People from Welfare to Work. Lessons from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies.. Participation in Education and Training: Can mandatory welfare-to-work programs engage large numbers of people in education and training?


Since the early 1980s, welfare policymakers and program operators have debated what role adult education -- basic education, GED preparation, and ESL classes -- should play in welfare-to-work programs. Even under TANF, discussion about the potential of education to help welfare recipients make the transition from welfare to work continues. Increasingly, a minimum level of reading and math skills and the possession of an education credential are seen as crucial in the current labor market. The concern is centered on welfare recipients who have no high school diploma or GED, since many policymakers view having one of these credentials as a prerequisite for entering the work force. Recipients who have at least one of these credentials are considered to face far fewer barriers to getting jobs. Furthermore, welfare reform efforts are focusing on "hard-to-employ" recipients, many of whom have educational deficits. Finally, in an effort to target scarce resources wisely, there is great interest in determining who would benefit most from adult education.

The first-order question in this debate, however, is whether participation mandates can really induce large numbers of welfare recipients -- about one-half of whom have not finished high school -- to enroll in and attend adult education classes. More generally, there is the question of whether programs can engage more people in adult education activities or vocational training than would participate on their own in any case. The outcomes for the education-focused programs in NEWWS speak directly to these questions.

  • It is possible to engage large numbers of welfare recipients in adult education and -- to a lesser extent, vocational training -- as part of mandatory welfare-to-work programs.

As shown in Figure 1, during the five-year follow-up period, 40 percent of enrollees in the three HCD programs participated for at least one day -- usually much longer -- in adult education activities, and 28 percent of them participated in vocational training. Participation rates in adult education were much higher for nongraduates (welfare recipients who entered the study without a high school diploma or GED) than for graduates (those who had at least one of these credentials at study entry). In contrast, participation rates in vocational training were higher for graduates than for nongraduates.

  • Impacts on participation -- that is, differences between the program and control groups' participation rates -- are more common and larger for adult education than for vocational training.

The HCD programs increased participation in adult education by 20 percentage points and vocational training by only 5 percentage points. Part of the reason for the disparity in impacts is that, as shown in Figure 1, welfare recipients on their own are somewhat more likely to enroll in vocational training classes than in adult education, leaving programs less room to increase participation in vocational training than adult education relative to control group levels. In addition, many vocational training programs require a high school diploma or GED for entry, which largely rules out this option for nongraduates. Finally, it should be kept in mind that the HCD programs generally did not assign people to college courses.

When people enrolled in adult education as part of a welfare-to-work program, they spent more than three times as many hours participating as did control group members. In addition, the programs increased the proportion of welfare recipients who participated in adult education across a wide variety of subgroups -- for example, among those with very young children, high school dropouts who had not completed school beyond the eighth grade, and those who did not want to go back to school.

Figure 1.
Participation in Education and training over Five Years:
Participation in Adult Education Increased More than Participation in Vocational Training

Participation in Education and training over Five Years:Participation in Adult Education Increased More than Participation in Vocational training.

Participation in Education and training over Five Years:Participation in Adult Education Increased More than Participation in Vocationaltraining

SOURCE: Hamilton et al., 2001

NOTE: The participation rates shown are averages for the HCD and control groups in Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and Riverside