Welfare to Work: Considerations for Adult and
Vocational Education Programs. ERIC Digest.
by Imel, Susan
The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation
Act (PRWORA) in 1996 ushered in a new era of welfare reform that emphasizes
economic self-sufficiency through a "work-first" approach designed to move
welfare recipients into the work force as quickly as possible (Hayes 1999).
Known as a rapid-employment strategy (General Accounting Office [GAO] 1999),
the work-first approach assumes that "the best preparation for work is
work itself and that welfare recipients will gain experience in entry-level
jobs and move on to better work" (Castellano 1998, p. 284). Education and
training for welfare recipients now consists primarily of short-term training
programs for welfare recipients and limited training sessions after work
for those who have found jobs (Hayes 1999). The work-first philosophy has
created challenges for adult and vocational educators who provide education
and training for welfare recipients. This Digest presents some considerations
for developing welfare-to-work programs in the current context. Issues
related to the welfare-to-work programs and characteristics of successful
programs are reviewed. Recommendations for program development based on
the literature conclude the Digest.
A number of issues are related to the current context of welfare-to-work
programming. Two discussed here are legislation/policy and the role of
education in the work-first environment.
LEGISLATION AND POLICY
PRWORA, the primary federal legislation driving welfare reform, created
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for providing block grants
to states. Compared to its predecessors, TANF established greater work
requirements for all parents, regardless of the ages of their children
and also placed a 5-year lifetime limit on receiving aid (GAO 1999). Although
states must meet minimum federal requirements for the work participation
rates of their welfare recipients, they are given latitude in what can
be counted as work (Hayes 1999). An additional piece of federal legislation
affecting the development of programs for welfare recipients is the Workforce
Investment Act (WIA). Passed in 1998, it consolidates over 70 work force
programs and gives states the flexibility to partner with local governments
to develop streamlined services that provide universal access to education
and training (Imel 2000).
The flexibility offered states by these pieces of federal legislation
has led to great variation in both state legislation and policies related
to TANF recipients (Grubb et al. 1999; Hayes 1999). Some states--for example,
Illinois--are using their own funds to support welfare recipients and therefore
setting back the clock on the time limits imposed by PRWORA (Hayes 1999).
Others, such as Wisconsin, have developed creative approaches that combine
work first with a human capital strategy (Grubb et al. 1999). Unfortunately,
innovative and creative approaches have not been the norm so that "in the
push to move people into work, many states have made education within welfare
reform a secondary consideration" (Hayes 1999, p. 7).
States with clear policies related to work force development have emphasized
local control of education and training through the development of local
work force development boards (Grubb et al. 1999). One drawback to this
development is the fact that at the local level educational options available
to TANF clients are often ignored or misunderstood (Hayes 1999).
Assumptions underlying the legislation present another set of issues.
The words personal responsibility in the title of PRWORA imply that somehow
poverty and joblessness result from individuals' failure to act on opportunities.
Also, an assumption exists that a lack of literacy and basic skills leads
to unemployment. These assumptions ignore underlying social and economic
structural problems as causes of poverty and joblessness (D'Amico 1999).
The legislation is geared toward ending welfare, not the underlying causes
that create the need for it (Hayes 1999).
EDUCATION AND TRAINING IN THE WORK-FIRST ENVIRONMENT
In the current welfare-to-work environment, the role of education and
training has been sharply curtailed, and its focus shifted from preparing
people for jobs to providing training concurrent with jobs (Hayes 1999).
Work, rather than lifelong learning or education, is stressed (Sheared,
McCabe, and Umeki 2000). In addition, the type of education and training
conducted under PRWORA focuses on individual instrumental growth and economic
development rather than on fostering social change or action (Sparks 1999).
Thus programs rarely encourage participants to engage in analysis of the
system that has created the need for welfare.
More than a little irony surrounds the move to deemphasize the role
of education and training in welfare-to-work programs. Although the welfare
rolls have dropped significantly since the introduction of TANF, this reduction
may be attributed in part to the current booming economy. Many welfare
recipients have been placed in entry-level, low-wage jobs with little or
no opportunity for advancement so they can avoid using part of their 5-year
eligibility or so that agencies can address the pressure to remove welfare
recipients from the rolls (Grubb et al. 1999). This type of work is limiting
and only serves to perpetuate the marginal status of individuals on welfare
(Sheared, McCabe, and Umeki 2000).
CHARACTERISTICS OF SUCCESSFUL PROGRAMS
Research on welfare-to-work programs developed under the PRWORA is limited.
However, a review of research (GAO 1999) conducted on previous generations
of welfare-to-work programs suggests that programs that combine job-search
assistance with some education and training tend to be more effective over
a 5-year period than programs focusing on either job placement or basic
skills training. Programs that used a combined approach were more successful
in helping participants obtain employment and increase their earnings,
while reducing welfare payments.
Studies (Grubb et al. 1999; Murphy and Johnson 1998) of welfare-to-work
programs support the effectiveness of a combined approach. Among the characteristics
identified by both studies were a focus on employment-related goals through
instruction that integrated basic and occupational skills training with
work-based learning, collaboration with other agencies to provide support
services, and attention to instruction. Grubb et al. also found that effective
programs collected and used information on program outcomes to improve
programs as well as to satisfy funding requirements for outcome measures.
The review of research on welfare-to-work programs (GAO) conducted during
the past 2 decades shows that an approach with a strong employment focus
can have positive effects. However, "more needs to be known about how well
different approaches are performing in the current environment created
by the enactment of welfare reform in 1996, which none of the evaluations
cover" (ibid., p. 2).
GUIDELINES FOR PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT
The current work-first environment does present challenges for adult
and vocational educators wishing to serve welfare recipients. The following
guidelines based on the literature can be used in developing welfare-to-work
* Collaborate with local agencies. Interagency collaboration is a necessary
ingredient of successful programs. It can provide a forum for interpreting
and implementing state and local policies in ways that are favorable to
education (Hayes 1999) and also serve as the medium for providing essential
support services such as transportation and child care. Interagency collaboration
promotes service integration that in turn enhances the retention of participants
(McIntire and Robins 1999).
* Focus on training for jobs that have potential in the local labor
market. Program developers must understand the local labor market so that
they can target training for jobs that have relatively high earnings, opportunity
for advancement, and potential for growth in the local market (Grubb et
al. 1999). Unfortunately, the availability of low-skill, entry-level jobs
in the current job market plus the narrow scope of funding for education
and training in most states' welfare reform policies have resulted in the
placement of many welfare-to-work participants in occupations with limited
opportunity (McIntire and Robins 1999). Educators should strive to overcome
these limitations by working with local employers and officials responsible
for economic development.
* Include a combination of academic and occupational learning experiences
designed to lead to further education and training. Evaluations of welfare-to-work
programs conducted during the past 2 decades show clearly that the most
effective programs are those that mix job search, basic skills education,
job training through the development of occupational skills, and paid and
unpaid work experience (GAO 1999). These elements should be integrated
with one another, with the intensity of academic and occupational training
tailored to the jobs targeted (Grubb et al. 1999). Furthermore, these programs
should be structured so that they lead to opportunities for further education
and training when participants are ready (ibid.).
* Attend to instruction. Instruction should be linked to the workplace
and to further education and training (Castellano 1998). Unfortunately,
instruction in many programs is delivered by inexperienced instructors
or those who have no training in linking instruction to work (Grubb et
al. 1999). Therefore, professional development of instructors must be a
priority (ibid.; Murphy and Johnson 1998).
* Work to change current policies. Finally, adult and vocational educators
should work to change current policies that focus on ending welfare to
those that are oriented to ending poverty (D'Amico 1999; Hayes 1999). Although
a work-first approach might be a short-term solution to reducing the current
welfare rolls, it does not represent the needs of learners and of educators
nor does it address the underlying structural problems that lead to poverty
and joblessness (D'Amico 1999; Sparks 1999).
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