A Study of Work Participation and Full Engagement Strategies. Introduction

09/01/2004

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) made sweeping changes to the welfare system in the United States, replacing the 60-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with a block grant to states to create the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. A system that once focused on the delivery of cash benefits now encourages families to make the transition from welfare to work.

This dramatic policy change has drawn attention both to the services intended to help families with this transition and to the need to engage recipients in activities that build their capacity to work. In fact, PRWORA requires states to engage a certain minimum percentage of their caseloads in specified work and work-related activities for a specified number of hours per week. The required rate in most states has been relatively low to date, however, because the minimum rate is reduced by one percentage point for each percentage point that a state's average monthly caseload drops below its average monthly caseload for fiscal year 1995. Thus, most states have not been terribly restricted by the federal legislation. While the percentage of TANF cases meeting the participation requirement nationwide is relatively low (33 percent in fiscal year 2002), states are likely engaging a larger share of cases either in activities other than those specified in the legislation or in the specified activities but for fewer hours than required by the federal law. The goal of engaging all or nearly all TANF recipients in work and work-related activities is even explicit in some state programs.

Information on the strategies used by state and local programs to engage a large percentage of TANF recipients in work activities is important because it could help other states that have the same goal in mind. Yet, we know little about these strategies other than that they are likely to comprise a combination of policies, program services, and administrative procedures. To learn more about these strategies and the extent to which they have been successful, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., (MPR) to conduct the Study of Work Participation and Full Engagement Strategies, an examination of seven state and local programs that attempt to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients in work and work-related activities. This report presents the study findings, which are especially timely, as the proposed reauthorization of the TANF legislation will likely require states to engage a greater percentage of their caseload in work activities.

The remainder of this chapter describes the policy context for the study, outlines the research questions that guided the study, and presents the study methodology. Chapter II provides background on the study sites and describes their general approaches to engaging TANF recipients in work or work-related activities. Chapters III presents findings on the strategies programs use to engage recipients, Chapter IV presents findings on the administrative procedures that support these strategies, and Chapter V presents findings on levels of engagement and program participation. Chapter VI summarizes the findings, presents their associated policy implications, and identifies questions to explore in future research.

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