ReWORKing Welfare Technical Assistance for States and Localities. 8. Participation Requirements


In establishing the participation requirements of a work first program, planners need to address three basic questions:

  • Who should participate?
  • How many hours should they participate?
  • What activities will count as participation?

This section addresses these questions and discusses some strategies for working with hard-to-serve participants.

Who Should Participate?

In general, work first programs extend participation to as broad a segment of the welfare caseload as possible. Most limit the criteria for exemptions or deferrals, and some have eliminated exemptions entirely, establishing "universal" participation. Broad participation helps to convey the overall message that employment is expected of all welfare recipients. Another reason for broad participation is that it is difficult to predict who will succeed at getting a job; even criteria like education or work history do not work well as predictors of "employability." A high-expectations program begins with the belief that all participants can succeed and allows the job search itself to determine who is employable. In addition, states may need to bring a large portion of their caseload into program activities in order to meet the participation rates required under federal law (see Appendix A). While there is no clear evidence that certain strategies are most effective for certain groups (such as teen parents or long-term recipients), research has shown that a work first approach can benefit many different types of participants.

Universal participation takes on added importance in the context of time limits. Programs need to work with all those who are subject to a time limit, to help them become self-sufficient before they reach their cut off date for financial support. If programs cannot serve everyone, then criteria for exemption or deferral from work first need to be coordinated with exemption from, or temporary suspension of, the time limit (see section 40, on time limits).

Exemptions and Deferrals

Despite the push for broad participation, program planners may decide to exempt certain categories of recipients from participating in work first, either because they feel participation is not appropriate for those groups or because they cannot provide the services that would allow those groups to participate. Planners need to decide not only what the criteria for program exemption will be but also what documentation will be required for individuals to meet those criteria. Note, however, that individuals exempted-or deferred-from work first are still included in the calculation of federally required participation rates (except for parents of children under one year of age, who can be exempt under TANF; see Appendix A).

Welfare-to-work programs have commonly exempted some or all of the following individuals:

  • Pregnant women
  • Teen parents enrolled in school
  • Child-only cases
  • Individuals of advanced age
  • Parents with very young children
  • Parents who are ill or incapacitated, or caretakers of ill or incapacitated family members
  • Parents residing in remote areas
  • Parents who are already employed for a substantial number of hours per week

Most programs also grant temporary deferrals for individuals who have a short-term reason for nonparticipation, such as a family crisis, a short-term illness, legal problems, or completion of self-initiated activities. Deferrals can be productive program components if individuals are able to use the time to address the reasons for the deferral so that they can participate. However, having standardized deferral periods may unnecessarily increase the length of time that individuals do not participate. Establishing deferral periods on a case-by-case basis and closely monitoring progress during such periods can eliminate delays. (See section 33, on maximizing participation.)

Targeting Resources

In a program environment with limited resources, program administrators may wish to consider whether to target certain groups of welfare recipients for participation. Spreading resources too thin can result in a program that is less effective for any group of participants. Perhaps the biggest mistake that program planners make is failing to prioritize those who will get served if resources run out or are cut back. Leaving that decision by default to overloaded line staff can result in a program that serves only those who are most motivated and most likely to be able to find jobs without the program's assistance.

The trade-offs associated with targeting various groups may be summarized as follows:

  • New welfare applicants. Strategies targeting new applicants aim to get people off welfare while many of them have recent work histories and before they become "trapped" in a life on welfare. However, targeting new applicants means that funds are being spent on individuals who may soon leave welfare on their own or who may never begin receiving welfare benefits.
  • Long-term welfare recipients. Because many recipients will leave welfare quickly on their own, some welfare-to-work programs concentrate their resources on long-term recipients. For example, in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), single parents are required to participate in employment-focused case management after they have received benefits for two of the last three years. However, waiting to require participation may not change the overall culture of welfare, and many would not describe such programs as work first. In addition, while mixed programs have shown impacts for most major subgroups of participants-including long-term recipients-there is less research evidence showing what specific strategies work well for this group.
  • Teen parents. There is a strong incentive to target teen parents, who are at especially high risk of becoming long-term welfare recipients. However, it may be more appropriate to consider other strategies for this group, such as encouraging high school completion. (This is an allowable work-related activity under TANF.) The work first philosophy and employment message can still be integrated into those other strategies. (See section 28, on the role of education.)
  • Volunteers. Running a voluntary program is one way of deciding who gets served if resources are limited. (Note, however, that state plans submitted under TANF must outline how the state intends to require recipients to work once the state determines the parent is ready to engage in work or after two years on assistance, whichever is earlier. See Appendix A.) To avoid serving only the most motivated and job ready-who would be more likely to volunteer but may least need the program's services-voluntary programs need to work especially hard at marketing the program to bring in a broad cross-section of participants. Work first programs can also adopt a mixed approach, in which participation by some groups is mandatory while other groups can volunteer. In addition, if there is a long wait before even mandatory participants enter the program, you may want to give volunteers the chance to move ahead in the queue. The inclusion of some volunteers, who are likely to be highly motivated, can improve the atmosphere of the program and inspire other participants.

How Many Hours Should They Participate, and What Activities Will Count as Participation?

The number of hours of participation required varies across work first programs. Many require from 20 to 30 hours per week, in order to intensify participation and make the experience of being in the program equivalent to that of working in an unsubsidized job. However, planners of programs with broad or universal participation may want to consider lower or more flexible hours requirements. Increased hours will mean increased costs for child care and program activities, as well as reduced flexibility in tailoring plans to participants' situations and needs (see "Working with the Hard to Serve," below). The programs that MDRC has studied averaged less than 20 hours per week of required participation; research has not yet addressed the question of whether increased hours will improve program impacts.

A similar trade-off occurs in defining what activities will count as participation. In most work first programs, participation is defined in terms of involvement in the program components (job search, education, work experience, and so on) described in section 6. However, planners aiming for universal participation may wish to provide some flexibility in allowing participants to meet the requirements through a combination of program components and other activities, such as counseling or volunteer work.

In order to count toward participation rates under TANF (see Appendix A), individuals must participate in specified activities for at least 20 hours per week (or more, depending on which year it is, family composition, and age of youngest child). Some program planners may decide to require participation for more or fewer hours than the participation standards specified under federal law, or they may designate different allowable activities. Participants who are active for fewer hours than the federal standards, or are in activities other than those specified in the federal law, will not be counted as participating for the purpose of federal requirements. However, policymakers may decide that different standards can be more effective given their situation and resources. Furthermore, states can reduce the federally required participation rates by reducing their caseloads through an effective work first program.

Working with the Hard to Serve

As participants move through the program, more and more will find jobs, leave welfare, become exempt, or be sanctioned. Those who remain in the program are likely to have greater barriers to employment and to need more intensive assistance. It is important to recognize that some welfare recipients have serious health, mental health, substance abuse, or other problems, and to be prepared with strategies and policies for working with those individuals. Section 36 offers advice for case managers on dealing with these issues, but the hard to serve should be considered in the larger policy context as well. The extent to which their problems can be addressed so that participation is possible depends partly on the nature of the problem, partly on the flexibility built into participation requirements, and partly on the availability of services in the community to assist individuals with these problems. It may make sense to reassess the situations and needs of participants who remain in the program for more than a certain length of time, and to formulate policies that focus attention on these hard-to-serve participants.

Program planners may also wish to consider using a broad definition of participation that encompasses a variety of activities and levels of involvement. For example, Utah's program requires universal participation, but allows parents who are not immediately able to look for work to meet the mandate by participating in mental health counseling or other activities that lead toward the goal of employment. Administrators in Utah found that universal participation requirements without such options can lead to excessive sanctioning, as staff had few options for assisting hard-to-serve participants. While counseling or similar activities will not count toward reaching participation rates required under TANF, planners may decide to allow such activities anyway, if they make sense for the work first program.

Another option is to limit up-front exemptions but allow back-end outlets for those who are unable to participate or find jobs. Under this approach, the program's message and mandate apply to a broad segment of the welfare caseload, and staff members begin with the expectation that everyone can participate and go to work. At the same time, program policy recognizes that not all will be able to work or participate at all times. If a barrier or problem is identified, staff first looks for ways to help the participant resolve it. Then, if the problem cannot be addressed within the context of the program, options are available for deferral or exemption from participation. Remember, however, that it is important to coordinate such exemptions or deferrals with time limit policies. If recipients are subject to the time limit, excusing them from participation in a work first program may harm them in the long run.