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Implementation of the Welfare-to-Work Grants Program

Publication Date
Jul 31, 2002


The $3 billion Welfare-to-Work (WtW) grants program established by Congress as part of the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997 provided funds to over 700 state and local grantees. Congress appropriated funds for FY1998 and FY1999, and grantees were allowed five years to spend their grant funds. The intent of the grants program, administered at the national level by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), was to supplement the welfare reform funds included in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants to states, which were authorized under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. WtW funds were intended to support programs, especially in high-poverty communities, to assist the least employable, most disadvantaged welfare recipients and noncustodial parents (NCPs) make the transition from welfare to work.

This is one of several reports from the congressionally mandated national evaluation of the WtW grants program, being conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., along with its subcontractors the Urban Institute and Support Services International. The report presents findings from the process and implementation analysis component of the evaluation, and describes the service delivery operations of programs funded with WtW grants in eleven study sites in Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Fort Worth, Texas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Nashville, Tennessee; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; Yakima, Washington; Indiana (19-county area); West Virginia (29-county area); and the Johns Hopkins University Multi-site Grantee operating in Baltimore County, Maryland; St. Lucie, Florida; and Long Beach, California. This report is based on (1) information collected through two rounds of site visits in 1999 and 2001, and (2) management information system data maintained by the programs on participants and services.

The organizational systems within which the WtW grant programs operate are complex and highly decentralized. In most of the eleven study sites, there are multiple programs, often operating in multiple locations, with varying arrangements for coordinating procedures with TANF agencies. Although Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) are the primary administrative entity, many have formal interaction with TANF agencies, and are often contracted to operate TANF work programs. Nonprofit organizations also play a major role, as direct program operators under subcontract from a WtW grantee, and as providers of special services.

Three general program models for delivering services to the hard-to-employ were implemented in programs in the study sites.

Based on how administrators and staff described their programs and an examination of how services are delivered, three general service delivery models were identified. Each model represents the primary approaches, or philosophies, operating in these WtW-funded programs:

  • Enhanced Direct Employment Models, where the emphasis is on providing participants with individualized pre-employment support, counseling, and case management, along with post-employment services for usually a year or more.
  • Developmental/Transitional Employment Models, where the program emphasizes skills development, often along with transitional, subsidized, or community service employment.
  • Intensive Post-Employment Skills Development Models, where the primary objective is to improve both job retention and specific occupational skills primarily by working with individuals after they start a job.

WtW grantees focus on the most disadvantaged, as specified in congressionally established provisions, but most programs have faced difficulties enrolling eligible individuals.

The WtW grants program was enacted to help the least employable and most disadvantaged welfare recipients and noncustodial parents make the transition from welfare to work. The legislation placed particular emphasis on serving individuals with the most difficult barriers to employment, including persons who have dropped out of high school, have low reading or math skills, have limited work experience, have been dependent on welfare for long periods, and/or have substance abuse and mental health problems.

The provisions in the law were very specific in terms of who could be served with WtW funds. In the original legislation, at least 70 percent of funds were required to be spent on long-term TANF recipients, or noncustodial parents of children in a long-term TANF case, with two of three specific barriers to self-sufficiency: poor work history, a substance abuse problem, or lack of high school diploma or GED and low reading or math skills. The remaining funds, no more than 30 percent of the total, could be spent on long-term recipients or NCPs who met less stringent criteria. The 1999 amendments maintained the 70/30 requirements, but broadened each category by eliminating the barrier requirements, allowing NCPs to qualify under the 70 percent provision, and allowing services to low-income parents with employment barriers in general (rather than just those on TANF).

Enrollment difficulties were the most important early issue WtW grant programs encountered, contributing to slow implementation. Considerable effort was devoted to identifying eligible persons and verifying eligibility, mainly to ensure adherence to the strict eligibility criteria and spending targets in the original legislation. In addition, the number of referrals from TANF agencies was lower than grantees had expected, even when formal referral arrangements were in place. Enrollment was slower and enrollment levels lower than planned in the first year. Programs, therefore, adopted direct marketing and outreach strategies to increase enrollment; about two years after beginning operations, programs were approaching their planned levels.

WtW programs in the study sites serve hard-to-employ welfare recipients and NCPs who meet the eligibility criteria, but each uses different strategies to focus on eligible persons. Similar to TANF recipients nationally, most WtW participants are between 18 and 44 years of age, and the vast majority are women. However, many WtW participants have characteristics often associated with disadvantages in the labor market  minority status, limited education, and mental and physical disabilities. Programs in the study sites primarily serve TANF recipients who meet WtW eligibility criteria. Within the TANF-eligible population, programs tend to serve those who meet the 70 percent criteria. Since the federal law requires that grantees spend at least 70 percent of their funds on persons in that category (mainly long-term recipients), most administrators were cautious about serving those who only met the 30 percent criteria because they were concerned enough about their low enrollment problem and their need to maintain the 70/30 spending split. Furthermore, few low-income non-TANF-eligible parents, made eligible by the 1999 amendments, are enrolled in the study sites, mainly because programs focused initially on the TANF population, had established procedures to obtain referrals from TANF agencies, and then devoted attention on an ongoing basis to refining and improving those referral mechanisms rather than seeking out a new eligible group. Program administrators and staff were interested in also serving NCPs, but very few have been enrolled except in the Milwaukee NOW program which exclusively serves noncustodial fathers on parole or probation. Again, while several administrators expressed an interest in NCPs, they focused instead on improving their enrolling of TANF recipients rather than actively recruiting this other eligible group.

Some programs target special subgroups within the eligible TANF population by contracting with providers that specialize in serving certain groups, such as homeless families, persons with mental or physical disabilities, individuals with limited education or English-speaking skills, and persons from particular ethnic groups. In addition, several programs target mainly on persons who first participate in a TANF work program but have not obtained employment, i.e., "hard-to-employ" TANF recipients.

WtW programs go beyond job readiness and self-directed job search assistance in the sense that they provide intensive individualized case management, coaching or support; and many programs also include more intensive developmental components and activities.

An underlying goal of the WtW grants program is to promote the long-term economic self-sufficiency of individuals who have serious employment difficulties. However, the emphasis is on employment rather than stand-alone education or training. With this goal in mind, the WtW programs at the 11 study sites offer a range of services to prepare participants for employment and to help participants remain employed, including incorporating skills development into a "work-first" approach. The basic approach to preparing participants for employment is to provide pre-employment services to participants, including assessment of service needs, job readiness skills instruction, and help in preparing for and finding jobs. However, substantial portions of participants also engage in developmental activities such as education, training, transitional subsidized employment or supported work experience. Supported work or transitional employment is offered in all the study sites, either directly through the WtW program or through referral to other programs within their communities  for example, paid community service jobs, unpaid work experience, employer-sponsored internships followed by a guaranteed job, and paid jobs as temporary workers through a temporary employment agency.

In comparison to supported and transitional work, relatively few WtW participants receive occupational training or education. The WtW legislation initially disallowed the use of grant funds for stand-alone pre-employment education or training. Grantees were, however, allowed and even encouraged to provide any necessary education or training in a post-employment situation  either in conjunction with work or mixing part-time work with part-time training or education. The 1999 amendments allowed grant funds to be used for short-term pre-employment training or education. Even so, few participants receive these services mainly because programs had already developed their service delivery systems under the original legislation that disallowed stand-alone, pre-employment education and training. Some programs, though, incorporate education and training into work components by, for example, including "wrap-around" education for all those in paid community service jobs, sponsoring computer-assisted instruction for basic education and occupation-specific training, collaborating with employers to design occupationally based pre-employment skills training, and providing post-employment worksite-based competency skills development.

WtW programs generally provide some type of post-employment services, primarily to help individuals retain their jobs.

At the time the WtW legislation was enacted, it was among the first federal welfare initiatives to specifically emphasize post-employment services, both job retention and education or skills development. WtW grantees are allowed flexibility in both the duration and the content of post-employment services.

All the programs in the study sites provide some post-employment services. Formal post-employment services are generally provided to individuals for periods ranging from six to 24 months, in addition to any TANF-related transitional health and child care benefits. Programs routinely provide job retention services, usually regular follow-up contact with participants, ongoing case management, and help finding a new job if necessary. A few programs also incorporate post-employment education and training, either in the workplace or through special instructional programs, although few participants engage in such activities, except in the JHU-CTS programs which focus specifically on post-employment skills development.

While all programs in the study sites provide some type of post-employment retention service, few offer skills development or employment advancement services. Staff and administrators explain that their primary challenge is to help people get and retain jobs. Job advancement is more of a long-term issue for which many of these participants are not yet ready, given the range of problems they often have.

WtW grantees report that about half of their program participants have entered regular unsubsidized employment.

The WtW grants were intended to not only move individuals into jobs, but also to help them obtain regular unsubsidized jobs that can potentially lead to sustained employment, career advancement, and self-sufficiency. While all of the study programs have maintained employment as their highest priority, each adopted a range of strategies to help individuals move into the labor market.

While it was not possible in this component of the evaluation to determine how effective the programs are, management information system (MIS) data available from most of the study programs provides information about job placement rates. In the study sites for which MIS data are available, about half the participants entered an unsubsidized job after enrolling in the program, at an average starting wage of about $7.00 an hour.

WtW participants follow four different pathways to employment

Although the job entry rates of programs that have the same general service model are somewhat similar, not all participants in a given program receive all of the services that could be provided, nor do they all remain in the program for the same length of time. For example, some individuals gain employment quickly, while others participate in several different activities before becoming employed. Thus, regardless of the overall program model followed by a program, participants in the study sites follow four different pathways, or combinations of services, on their way to employment.

  1. The Basic Employment Preparation Pathway is perhaps most consistent with what is sometimes referred to as Work First. Individuals enter employment after receiving only general job search assistance or attending job readiness workshops. They usually receive support services such as child care or transportation assistance, but do not actively participate in other employment-related activities.
  2. The Transitional Employment Pathway is one in which individuals enter employment after having participated in some intermediate type of work activity, for example, paid or unpaid work experience, supported work, an occupational internship or exploration, sheltered workshop, or subsidized employment. Some may have also participated in a job search activity or job readiness workshop.
  3. The Education or Training Pathway is one in which individuals enter employment after enrolling in an education or occupational training program or course, but not in a formal work experience assignment. Most may have also participated in a job search activity or job readiness workshop.
  4. The Mixed Activities Pathway is one in which individuals enter employment after engaging in subsidized work or work experience as well as education and/or training. Most may have also participated in a job search activity or job readiness workshop.

The four pathways to employment do not necessarily correspond to the three general service models mentioned earlier, because the models describe entire programs while the pathways refer to individual behavior. For example, while many participants in an enhanced direct employment program may follow the basic pathway to employment, some who have difficulty finding employment might engage in community service jobs or work experience first. Conversely, a developmental/transitional program may encourage individuals to participate in training or supported work, but many participants may still follow the basic pathway to employment, especially when the economy is strong and jobs are readily available.

The most common pathway to employment in the study sites is basic employment preparation, accounting for over 60 percent of all job entries.

While this report does not address effectiveness, a number of potentially promising program strategies were developed in the study sites.

  • Extensive involvement of nonprofit organizations as program operators and special service providers (e.g., reaching out to and serving those with substance abuse, physical or mental health issues, limited English skills, homelessness, and other problems).
  • Collaboration with employers (e.g., designing pre-employment components, workplace internships, or post-employment skills development).
  • Transitional work activities, bridging the transition from welfare-to-work (e.g., paid community service jobs; part-time community service with wrap-around education, training, or other instruction; supervised temporary employment; sheltered workshops; or on-the-job training).
  • Intensive complementary service programs for TANF hardest-to-employ (e.g., special program models for TANF recipients who do not find employment through the regular TANF-sponsored work program).

The WtW grant program experiences suggest a number of policy and operational lessons about serving welfare and low-income parents with serious employment problems.

  • First, detailed eligibility and fiscal provisions can delay program implementation. In WtW, the intent was appropriately to ensure that funds were used for those with the greatest need for services. One effect was that programs had to develop complicated, time-consuming, and often administratively costly procedures (e.g., reading and math tests for all applicants) to document each of the criteria to verify eligibility. Congress loosened the eligibility provisions in 1999, but for many programs this change came so late that they were reluctant to change their intake procedures, agreements with TANF agencies, forms, and reporting systems.
  • Second, temporary funding and authority imposes added challenges in implementing a program. Congress enacted the WtW program as a time-limited program to help cushion the expected effects of welfare reform on long-term TANF recipients. The temporary authorization, however, compounded some implementation problems  for example, some programs found it difficult to establish ongoing referral arrangements with TANF and other agencies, which often had their own network of permanent programs to which they would refer individuals, regardless of how attractive the new program might seem.
  • Third, programs benefit from partnerships and collaborations at the local level that make special services, expertise, and resources available to the target population, but there are some important challenges that must be addressed. All of the grantees studied represented collaborative efforts, and some worked better than others. Although it was often time-consuming, complicated, and difficult to bring together multiple partners, a number of the WtW grantees were able to do so  for example, funding collaboratives or consortia of nonprofit organizations; blending WIA, WtW, and TANF funds for program operations; or establishing procedures to transition individuals from TANF work programs to WtW programs.
  • Finally, carefully designed programs can reach populations with serious employment problems through systematic outreach and recruitment and a comprehensive package of services. Despite the implementation difficulties, one lesson from the WtW grants program experience is that programs can recruit and serve individuals with serious employment problems. While programs struggled to recruit those who met the very strict eligibility criteria, the fact is that nearly everyone eventually served by these programs is what is often referred to as "hard-to-employ." Even in sites that were able to reach their original enrollment goals, staff noted both the difficulties of recruiting WtW participants and the importance of mounting well-organized and sustained recruitment efforts for such projects.


Low-Income Populations
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)