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SSRC Notes: What have we learned from welfare-to-work?

Date Added to Library: 
Tuesday, February 27, 2018 - 09:43
Individual Author: 
Kendall, Jessica R.
Reference Type: 
Research Methodology: 
Published Date: 
Published Date (Date): 
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Posted by Jessica R. Kendall, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff

Core features of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) promoted work and job preparation among Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash recipients. Welfare reform was influenced by a sizeable volume of research on welfare-to-work programs taking place at the time. Since PRWORA’s passage, newer—albeit fewer—studies have assessed more recent welfare-to-work efforts.

What have these studies found and what have we learned from them?  

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a surge of legislatively supported random assignment evaluations to test the effectiveness of mandatory welfare programs that offered employment services, education and training, or both. During this period federal law authorized one of the largest welfare-to-work evaluations to-date, the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies (NEWWS). This multi-year study assessed initiatives in 11 different welfare-to-work programs across the country. Primary strategies evaluated offered pre-employment short-term job assistance and rapid job placement or longer-term skilling building opportunities. All programs studied increased employment and earnings and decreased welfare receipt. But no program made families materially better off—neither increasing income nor reducing poverty.

Around the same time, many states conducted their own random assignment evaluations under waiver provisions of the federal Social Security Act. A range of program strategies were tested in these studies—from mandatory work requirements to earning supplements and time limits. Each included an impact analysis of program effects and many became the basis for states’ TANF programs. One such study—of Minnesota’s Family Investment Program—evaluated strategies that offered financial incentives, which included allowing participants to keep more of their cash assistance when they went to work compared with other welfare participants. It also included paying child care expenses directly to providers, combined welfare, family general assistance, and food stamps, and required participation in a week-long job skills class, followed by seven weeks of supervised job search and group activities. Compared with the control group, the Family Investment Program’s relatively intensive supports increased employment and earning in the months following program entry and participants more quickly found jobs. The study also found positive impact on child well-being—noting that children exhibited fewer behavioral problems, did better in school, were more likely to be in a child care setting, and were more likely to have continuous health care coverage.

Overall, earlier welfare-to-work studies showed positive, but small impacts on employment and welfare receipt—common program features that may be related to these results included job search supports, time limits, and financial incentives. 

Following welfare reform, the federal government continued to fund experimental studies examining approaches to improve the impacts of welfare-to-work programs. Many of these studies showed limited or mixed results. The Employment Retention and Advancement Project (ERA), 1998-2011 evaluated strategies to promote employment retention and advancement among welfare participants and low-wage workers. It assessed 16 approaches in eight states. It found that earning supplements combined with employment services may have positive earnings results, but did not find positive results for programs that combined work and education. The Enhanced Services for the Hard-to-Employ Demonstration and Evaluation, 2001-2012 assessed the effectiveness of programs designed to enhance employment outcomes for current or former TANF participants and other low-income parents who have demonstrated difficulty entering and sustaining employment. It assessed four sites, each targeting different populations—from TANF recipients to ex-offenders, and Medicaid recipients. The studies had mixed results—subsidized transitional jobs did not show long-term impacts on employment or earnings; one program focused on TANF recipients with disabilities showed some positive earning impacts.

Today, ongoing studies continue to test what works in welfare-to-work programming. Several focus on career laddering initiatives that seek to move participants into better paying jobs and sustained self-sufficiency. Some assess the intersection and coordination between different, but overlapping human service systems. Still others are testing enhanced case management and supportive interventions to build participant capacity and promote job retention. Few, however, have focused on various sub-populations of TANF participants, including those with specific barriers or children. Few early studies also included implementation analyses to more fully discern how various program features were executed and why. While there continue to be gaps in our understanding of welfare-to-work initiatives, larger policy and research questions have also arisen. Some suggest that a broader focus on TANF evaluation is in order. With only a small portion of today’s TANF funds being used for cash assistance programs—what are the impacts TANF funds have in supporting other programs that serve needy families and children?   

Learn more about welfare-to-work from the SSRC:

The SSRC Library contains numerous reports and stakeholder resources about welfare-to-work, including:

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