The programs studied in NEWWS were initially run under the federal Family Support Act (FSA). Enacted in 1988, FSA required the government to provide education, employment, and support services to adults receiving cash welfare assistance, known at the time as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Recipients of AFDC, in turn, were required to participate in the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program created under FSA. The NEWWS programs continued to operate (with some modification) after passage of the most recent federal welfare reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), in 1996. Moreover, many of the goals, mandates, and program strategies first spelled out in FSA underpin PRWORA as well.
FSA, under which the NEWWS programs originated, introduced some important new features. Through its mandates and incentives, it encouraged state and local program administrators to serve welfare populations with whom they previously had little contact and to experiment with new types of services, messages, and mandates. In most states for the first time, the majority of single-parent welfare recipients with children aged 3 to 5 (or as young as age 1, at states' option) were required to enroll and participate in a welfare-to-work program, which meant that they had to work or engage in activities aimed at preparing them for work. In addition, FSA mandated that programs reserve at least 55 percent of federal welfare funds to provide services to welfare recipients who were deemed at greatest risk of long-term welfare dependency. FSA also emphasized new types of services: The services offered and supported by the states now had to include adult education -- that is, high school or General Educational Development (GED) exam preparation classes, basic and remedial education, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. In addition, teenage custodial parents without a high school diploma or GED had to return to classes in order to obtain one of these credentials. Finally, FSA required enrollees to participate in employment preparation activities for as long as they remained on welfare and eligible for services. Case managers were expected to monitor recipients' participation in program activities and to respond to nonparticipation using a variety of informal and formal measures, including reductions of welfare grants.
The expansion of welfare-to-work programs and the requirement to work with more disadvantaged populations intensified the long-standing debate among program administrators and policymakers concerning how best to help welfare recipients, especially those facing serious barriers to employment, move from welfare to work. Research conducted in the 1980s demonstrated that job-search-first programs sped up the entry of welfare recipients into the labor market. The jobs that people found through such programs, however, tended to be neither long-lasting nor high-paying, leaving many people with little income, living in poverty, and back on the welfare rolls. In addition, the programs did not benefit the most disadvantaged.
Realizing that in the general population people with more education and degrees tend to earn more, policymakers began to focus on the possible value of education and training in welfare-to-work programs. Proponents of education and training argued that making initial investments in building people's skills might enable them -- especially those without a high school diploma or with other employment barriers -- to get better and more stable jobs, increase their income, and become less likely to return to welfare. Critics of this approach believed that mandatory education programs for adult single parents, many of whom had left education institutions as teenagers, not only would be very costly and hard to implement on a large scale but might also delay people's labor market entry without guaranteeing that their foregone earnings would be made up by better jobs later. Proponents of job search programs countered that any job, even a low-paying or temporary one, is the best way to build skills that might lead to better jobs and is cost-effective as well. They advocated enhancing and adding services to job search programs to increase their overall effectiveness; among the new services proposed were instruction on how to find employment, peer support, time-management classes, self-esteem-building exercises, and job development (efforts to increase the pool of available jobs). Critics of the job search approach thought it still did not address the essential need -- namely, to build recipients' skills -- and that the proof of its merits would be in long-term rather than short-term results. Thus, in the wake of FSA, "What works best?" became a pivotal question for policymakers and program administrators alike.
The 1996 welfare reform law, PRWORA, built on many aspects of FSA, but it also contained new provisions. First, it replaced AFDC with a flexible, state-directed program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provided each state with a block grant -- a lump sum of money -- to spend on welfare programs and benefits. Second, for most families it put a lifetime limit of five years on federally funded cash welfare; any cash assistance beyond that point would have to be funded by the state. Third, PRWORA created financial incentives for states to run mandatory, work-focused welfare-to-work programs and required virtually all welfare recipients to work or participate in program activities. The law's time limit on welfare receipt, its focus on work, and its requirement that the entire welfare caseload work or receive work-directed services fueled the already keen interest in the question of which welfare-to-work approach is most effective at moving people from welfare to work.