This guide is being published at a major turning point in welfare policy. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 has replaced the entitlement to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a block grant that covers both cash assistance and welfare employment and training activities. The legislation gives states new flexibility to design innovative welfare-to-work programs. Many of its elements-including capped funding, time limits on program eligibility, and demanding work requirements-place pressure on states and localities to operate large-scale programs that effectively help welfare recipients find and keep jobs.
Many states have already taken steps to redesign their welfare-to-work programs. One of the most popular strategies is commonly called "work first." Work first programs aim to move participants into unsubsidized employment as quickly as possible through job search and short-term education, training, or work experience activities. Programs incorporating a work first approach have been shown to produce positive impacts under varying conditions. Recent studies have also shown some of the trade-offs in this approach compared to other strategies. Knowledge about work first programs comes from comprehensive evaluations and discussions with program managers, practitioners, and participants. This guide seeks to summarize that knowledge so that program planners, administrators, and staff can put in place effective, well-designed programs. However, this guide is not meant to suggest that a work first model is the most effective welfare-to-work strategy. The best model for any given place depends on its specific goals, resources, and local conditions.
This guide was developed with two main sources of support and encouragement. First, it was conceived as part of the JOBS Evaluation, which MDRC is conducting for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with additional support from the U.S. Department of Education. The goal was to summarize, in an applied form, some of the information and insights being gained from that large-scale study and from the broader knowledge base of which it is an important part.
Second, the guide is part of a new initiative at MDRC. As a research organization, we have spent 20 years evaluating state welfare reform projects and have built a unique body of reliable knowledge about the effectiveness of different strategies for moving people from welfare to work. Our Board and staff have decided to try to do more to distill, synthesize, and share the lessons from our studies as well as our extensive field and operational experience, so that states and localities can make more informed choices as they move to reform welfare. To do this, we recently launched a new technical assistance project, called ReWORKing Welfare, funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the George Gund Foundation. The project includes briefings, conferences, tailored technical assistance to states and localities, and a series of monographs on best practices. This guide is the first in that series.
We are grateful to the funders who made this guide possible. We hope readers will find it informative, and we welcome comments and inquiries about both the guide and the technical assistance project as a whole.
Judith M. Gueron