A Study of Work Participation and Full Engagement Strategies. Key Findings

09/01/2004

Relatively few states or counties appear to have explicit policies or procedures for engaging all or nearly all TANF recipients in work or work-related activities.

We asked a broad group of researchers, policymakers, and staff at nongovernmental organizations and community-based organizations to identify program sites that (1) exempt very few recipients from participating in work or work-related activities, (2) have an explicit goal of actively engaging all or nearly all recipients in program activities, and (3) have an explicit strategy in place to achieve this level of engagement. Only three state and five local programs were identified nationwide  El Paso County, Colorado; New York City, New York; Norfolk, Virginia; Ohio; Oswego County, New York; Riverside County, California; Utah; and Wisconsin  and all but two were included in the study.(1) It is possible that other state and local programs have policies or procedures in place for engaging all or nearly all TANF recipients in work or work-related activities, but were not identified in this process.

Programs that aim to engage a large share of TANF recipients in work and work-related activities do not approach this goal in the same way.

Five of the study sites require virtually all recipients to participate in program activities, but the philosophies guiding the programs and the contexts in which they operate differ. In developing employment plans, El Paso County emphasizes the needs of the entire family, while Utah focuses on the individual recipient's strengths. Wisconsin emphasizes rapid attachment to the labor market but acknowledges that some recipients have complex service needs that require a more individualized approach to employment planning. Franklin and Montgomery counties in Ohio emphasize the importance of work experience. Montgomery County also relies heavily on community collaborations and interagency partnerships to expand the availability and accessibility of services that may be included in employment plans.

The other two study sites take different approaches to engagement in work and work related activities. Oswego County in New York requires all TANF recipients to participate in program activities but requires only some to participate in work activities specifically. The county mandates group case management meetings for all recipients to encourage frequent goal setting and peer support, and to help recipients take incremental steps toward employment. Riverside County in California requires only some recipients to participate in program activities, but those activities must pertain directly to work. This policy is in keeping with the county's philosophy that work plus education and training is the best way to become self-sufficient

To engage a large share of recipients in work and work-related activities, programs use two key strategies, alone or in combination: (1) defining the activities in which recipients can participate broadly and (2) providing employment opportunities outside the labor market.

Six of the seven study sites allow recipients who are not work ready to participate in a broad range of activities, including many that do not count in the federal participation rate calculation. These activities are designed to (1) address personal and family challenges such as mental health problems or substance abuse, (2) help recipients obtain work supports such as child care or transportation, and (3) support recipients' efforts to obtain services or comply with requirements in other programs, such as child welfare or child support enforcement services or programs. Recipients in Utah, El Paso County, and Wisconsin's W-2T program may be assigned to such nonfederal activities alone or in combination with federally countable or allowable activities. However, in other sites, nonfederal activities are usually allowed only in combination with federally countable or allowable activities.

Four of the seven sites use work experience or community service placements as a primary strategy for engaging recipients who have not found employment. The purpose of these placements is to teach workplace norms and behaviors to recipients with a limited work history. Recipients are placed in wide range of entry-level positions in nonprofit or government agencies for three to nine months. All of the sites that use work placements also permit recipients to participate in a broad range of program activities, often combining work experience with nonfederal activities.

Individualized service planning, supported by comprehensive assessments, helps program staff determine the most appropriate activities for each TANF recipient.

TANF caseloads comprise recipients with diverse needs, abilities, and personal and family situations. In order to identify the unique circumstance that may help or hinder recipients' progress toward employment, all sites conduct standard employability assessments, and most conduct more specialized assessments. Case managers use assessment results to determine which activities are most appropriate for each recipient. In sites that afford case managers a high degree of discretion in case planning, this information is also used to justify variation in the number of hours recipients are required to devote to program activities.

Even after the initial assessment and the employment plan are complete, case managers play an active role in helping recipients to move into paid employment. They regularly and frequently follow up with recipients to reassess their circumstances, modify employment goals, address barriers to employment, and provide encouragement and support. Again, programs that give case managers the most flexibility encourage them to make contact with recipients at least monthly. Small caseloads or group case management meetings make frequent contact feasible.

Four administrative procedures  communicating a clear and consistent program message, tracking participation, sanctioning for nonparticipation, and holding staff accountable through performance standards and supervision  advance broad engagement.

Achieving full engagement depends, in part, on the extent to which senior policymakers and program administrators champion the philosophy of engagement in the messages they send to their staff and agency partners and, in turn, the messages staff send to TANF recipients. Without communicating clearly and consistently that the mission of the welfare agency is to put TANF recipients back to work, and that recipients are capable of taking steps toward this goal, programs risk recipients stagnating in activities that are not helping them progress.

Tracking participation allows case managers to (1) identify nonparticipation quickly, (2) respond to it by re-engaging recipients and/or helping them to resolve issues that affect participation, and (3) document noncompliance as a means to holding recipients accountable for their progress. While case managers have primary responsibility for tracking participation, they rely on other program staff and contractors to provide them with the information they need to identify and respond to nonparticipation in a timely manner. Close working relationships, co-location of service providers, and automated tracking systems facilitate the transfer of information to case managers. When case managers receive reports of nonparticipation, they frequently use the sanction process as the means to re-engage recipients. In all study sites, case managers communicate with recipients at risk of being sanctioned via mail and telephone, but in some sites, they also conduct face-to-face conciliation meetings or refer recipients to specialized workers who do more intensive outreach to identify and address issues that might affecting participation.

Some of the study sites also establish performance standards for local offices and front-line staff to encourage high levels of engagement in program activities. For example, counties in Wisconsin are expected to engage 80 percent of their active TANF caseloads in program activities each month. In most of the study sites, supervisors play an active role in making sure that case managers develop and monitor employment plans for all recipients on their caseloads. Supervisors routinely review cases with case managers and identify any problems they may have in engaging recipients. For example, in Utah, supervisors conduct monthly or quarterly performance reviews with each case manager, and they use a new management information system to review detailed information on every recipient's participation and progress.

When all program activities are taken into account, the study sites in which we were able to analyze administrative data achieved high levels of engagement.

In the two study sites that allow all TANF recipients to participate in the broadest range of program activities  El Paso County, Colorado, and Utah  the vast majority of all TANF recipients are actively involved in program activities to some extent. However, a substantial portion of the caseload in these two sites either participates only in activities that are not considered in the federal participation rate calculation or combines nonfederal with federally countable or allowable activities. Most of these recipients are not counted in the numerator of the federal participation rate calculation  either because they are not engaged in one of the 12 activities considered in the calculation or because they are not engaged in one or more of those 12 activities for the minimum number of hours required in the calculation. If these recipients were included in the numerator, it is likely that federal participation rates would be much higher than they are now.

Keeping the majority of TANF recipients engaged in program activities is an ongoing struggle.

Despite the multitude of engagement strategies programs use, at any point in time, a nontrivial proportion of the caseload is not actively involved in any activities. Moreover, the likelihood of sitting idle on the caseload increases with time on the caseload. Programs face a number of challenges both in engaging TANF recipients in work or work-related activities initially and in sustaining participation.

For instance, shrinking fiscal resources and other budget concerns at the state and local level have forced officials to cut staff, services, and supports at many of the study sites. In many cases, these actions have compounded the traditional problems of turnover and excessively high caseloads, which can prevent staff from working with and tracking TANF recipients in a timely and efficient way. In addition, it is likely that programs attempting to engage all or nearly all TANF recipients are working with a sizeable proportion of recipients who have complex service needs. Ensuring that there are enough specialized program activities that are appropriate for these recipients while maintaining adequate capacity in more traditional activities such as job search workshops is yet another challenge. Finally, programs must reconcile the difference between federal and state or local goals if they are to both meet the unique needs of their caseloads and avoid financial penalties by complying with federal participation requirements.

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