The impact of any welfare-to-work program depends on diverse factors, such as the amount and use of resources, the mix of services provided, the message that is communicated to participants, and the quality of implementation. Given the interaction of all these factors, it is difficult to conclude that any particular strategy is most effective at helping people on welfare find jobs. However, some general themes appear to be emerging from research on various welfare-to-work programs. This section discusses some of those themes.
People often associate a work first strategy with job search. But while job search is a central activity, research suggests that it is not the only important component of work first programs. Evaluations in the 1980s of programs that relied primarily on job search activities, and subsequent evaluations of approaches that combined job search with education, training, and other features, indicate that mixed programs that maintain a focus on employment can generate larger or more lasting increases in employment rates, earnings, and income than do pure job search programs. Evaluations of mixed-strategy programs in several states have also shown that such programs can save welfare dollars and return more to government budgets than they cost.
An evaluation by MDRC of six counties in California's GAIN program (the nation's largest JOBS program) found positive results in each of these areas. While GAIN as a whole was not a work first model, the most successful county GAIN program, in Riverside County, incorporated a work first approach for a large proportion of the caseload. For single-parent recipients, the program increased earnings by an average of 44 percent (compared to a control group) and reduced welfare payments by an average of 15 percent (again compared to a control group) over 4.5 years, and the impacts have held up over time. In addition, the program saved almost $3 for every dollar invested over a five-year period. Single-parent participants came out of the program somewhat better off: their average gains from increased earnings and fringe benefits, minus increased taxes, were greater than their losses from reduced public assistance benefits. At the same time, however, the Riverside program did not lift many people out of poverty and did not eliminate the need for welfare, since many participants remained on the rolls.
The ongoing JOBS Evaluation in Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and Riverside is also finding positive results. The work first programs in those sites increased earnings over two years by as much as $1,212 compared to a control group. Savings from reduced welfare payments over two years ranged from $368 in Atlanta to $1,338 in Grand Rapids (though some of these savings were due to sanctioning as opposed to increased employment). The JOBS Evaluation also compares the work first programs in those sites with programs in the same sites which emphasize a human capital development (HCD) approach. In contrast to work first, HCD programs generally encourage investment in education and training as a route to employment, primarily through the provision of basic education. After two years, welfare and employment impacts for the HCD approach were not as strong as those for work first. However, HCD impacts may take longer to surface and may grow over time as participants complete their education and training and enter the workforce.
The most successful work first programs have shared some characteristics: a mixed strategy including job search, education and training, and other activities and services; an emphasis on employment in all activities; a strong, consistent message; a commitment of adequate resources to serve the full mandatory population; enforcement of participation requirements; and a cost-conscious management style.