National Evaluation of the Welfare-to-Work Grants Program: Final Report. Lessons for Program Design and Implementation

09/01/2004

The philosophy underlying the WtW grants program was that work is the best preparation for work. The result was a program that encouraged grantees to find creative ways to move enrollees into the labor force quickly, while providing some substantial support if it appears needed for that transition  more than would be typical in a simple job search/placement program. The findings from this evaluations nonexperimental outcome analysis do not allow us to draw a firm conclusion regarding whether WtW enrollees made better employment progress than they would have without the program. Although most enrollees worked at some time during the evaluations two-year follow-up period, employment problems were still widespread at the end of that period, and the jobs they held often left them in poverty.

Whether a more comprehensive approach, with greater attention to skills development before employment placement, would work better remains an open issue. Congress, responding to views on this issue expressed by grantees, amended the program in 1999 to allow local WtW programs to make some use of job training before job placement. Notwithstanding this design change, the outcomes observed in the 11 study sites suggest that there remains room for considerable improvement in our ability to move welfare recipients into sustainable employment that boosts them out of poverty. Further experimentation and research could address the contributions to that goal that could be made by greater use of job training, as well as the effects of other factors such as health care, child care, other support services, and help with family relationships.

The findings from this evaluations implementation study do provide a basis for the following six lessons regarding the design and implementation of employment programs for TANF recipients and individuals with significant labor market liabilities:

Effective inter-agency partnerships are important. The legislation that authorized the WtW grants, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (BBA), required local programs funded by the grants to be implemented within a framework of partnership with local TANF agencies. However, effective partnerships were often slow to develop. In combination with falling welfare caseloads, this often resulted in low numbers of referrals of welfare recipients by TANF agencies to WtW programs, thereby exacerbating the difficulties that many local WtW programs experienced in achieving their enrollment targets. In sites where effective partnerships ultimately did develop, they resulted in improved access for welfare recipients to the workforce development system.

Increased Service Capacity is an Important Legacy. WtW grants afforded many nonprofit community-based organizations their initial opportunity to serve TANF recipients and/or noncustodial parents. Thus, the program increased the pool of qualified organizations with which TANF agencies can contract for employment services in the post-WtW era.

Program Flexibility Encourages Innovative Programming. Flexible rules allowed WtW grantees and their service providers to develop creative program service approaches and administrative practices. These included partnerships with employers, transitional and supported employment, and post-employment case management and job retention services. Some grantees pressed for additional flexibility to provide a broader range of pre-employment services, and Congress responded in 1999 with amendments to the program that permitted up to six months of pre-employment skill-enhancement training.

Stringent eligibility criteria and fiscal requirements may result in low enrollments. The BBA required WtW grantees to spend at least 70 percent of their grant funds on services for enrollees who met very detailed and restrictive eligibility requirements. Up to 30 percent of grant funds could be used to provide services to enrollees who met less stringent eligibility requirements. The former requirement contributed to the widespread problems that grantees experienced in achieving enrollment targets during the early years of the WtW program.

A mid-course correction to a temporary program may be ineffective. The 1999 amendments to the BBA loosened the criteria that defined the enrollees on whom at least 70 percent of grant funds had to be spent. They also expanded the list of allowable pre-employment program activities to include up to six months of vocational education or job training. However, the potential for these changes to have effects were limited because the final program rules reflecting the amendments were published late in the life of the time-limited (five years) grants program and, in that context, grantees were reluctant to revise existing procedures and referral agreements with local TANF agencies.

Temporary funding may accentuate program design and implementation problems. The BBA required that grant funds be spent within three years of their receipt. The 1999 amendments extended that period by two years. Despite the extension, some local WtW administrators continued to believe that temporary funding compounded problems associated with the design and implementation of their programs. These included the reluctance of TANF and other agencies to refer clients to WtW rather than to service providers with whom they had long-term relationships. The administrators also viewed short-term funding as an impediment to identifying and correcting program design problems.

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