Publications

Report

Early Implementation of Jobs First

Connecticut’s Welfare’s Reform Initiative

01/1998
| Dan Bloom, Mary Andes, Claudia Nicholson

Connecticut’s Jobs First program is a statewide welfare reform initiative that began operating in January 1996. Jobs First was one of the earliest statewide programs to impose a time limit on welfare receipt: Most families are limited to 21 months of cash assistance. The program also includes generous financial work incentives and requires recipients to participate in employment-related services targeted toward rapid job placement. (See Table ES.1.) Jobs First was initiated under waivers of federal welfare rules that were granted before the passage of the 1996 federal welfare law; thus, the program’s experience may provide important lessons on the likely results of welfare reforms implemented across the country in response to the new law.

This report has been prepared as part of a large-scale evaluation of Jobs First being conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). The evaluation is funded under a contract with the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) — the agency that administers Jobs First — and with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Ford Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with more than two decades’ experience designing and evaluating social policy initiatives. The study focuses on two of the state’s welfare offices — New Haven and Manchester — which include about one-fourth of the state’s welfare caseload.

The report describes Jobs First’s implementation in the research sites during roughly the first two years of program operations, from early 1996 to early 1998.1 It focuses primarily on the “pre-time limit period” — the period before Jobs First participants reached the 21-month time limit — but also includes early information on the process that occurs when individuals approach and then reach the time limit. Recipients began to reach that point in late 1997. The report does not present data on whether Jobs First has generated changes in recipients’ employment or welfare receipt patterns, income, or other measures relative to the welfare system it replaced. The first such data will be presented in an interim report scheduled for 1999. The study’s final report is scheduled for 2001.

Summary of the Key Findings

Jobs First has generated important changes in the message and practices of Connecticut’s welfare system. For example, the state’s welfare-to-work program has shifted its emphasis toward rapid job placement and away from education and training; welfare eligibility workers report that they are now more likely to talk with clients about issues related to employment and self-sufficiency; and DSS has put in place a process to review large numbers of cases as they reach the time limit in order to determine whether extensions should be granted.

At the same time, Jobs First has experienced some start-up problems. In part, these difficulties reflect the far-reaching nature of the program and the fact that most dramatic policy changes encounter problems in their early stages. In addition, Jobs First has been implemented in a challenging environment. For example, unlike many of the other welfare reforms initiated under waivers, Jobs First was implemented statewide from its inception and with little time for advance planning. Finally, Jobs First has gone into effect during a period of extraordinary flux in Connecticut’s social welfare system: DSS managers and staff have been called upon to implement a host of new initiatives during the past two to three years.

The report focuses on four key tasks that DSS has faced in implementing Jobs First and describes how these issues have been addressed in the research sites:

Explaining the time limit and the financial incentives. The success of Jobs First depends heavily on communication: The time limit and the financial incentives cannot have their full desired impacts unless clients are aware of and understand the policies. However, it is a challenging task to explain dramatic new policies to welfare recipients, particularly recipients who have received benefits for a long period under the old rules.

MDRC’s site visits and a survey of staff indicate that workers routinely inform and remind clients about the time limit and the incentive, which is an enhanced “earned income disregard” — a rule change that allows working clients to retain their entire welfare grant as long as their earnings are below the federal poverty level. Data from a small survey of clients indicate that most clients are aware of these policies. At the same time, most Jobs First clients are not required to have frequent contact with staff, and workers’ large caseloads prevent them from contacting many clients proactively. Thus, there are relatively few opportunities for staff to aggressively market the new policies or to work with clients to decide how best to respond. Moreover, there appears to be some variation in the way staff describe the policies to clients.

Reorienting employment services. Jobs First seeks to bring about fundamental changes in Connecticut’s employment services for welfare recipients. It aims to convert a largely voluntary program with a strong emphasis on education and training into a mandatory program focused on immediate job placement. In addition, Jobs First aims to greatly expand the number of clients served without increasing the number of DSS staff.

The information collected to date suggests that Jobs First has generated key changes in employment services. As intended, most clients start with “up-front” job search activities, and employment services staff report focusing much more attention on the goal of employment. Moreover, staff report that clients are more likely to be sanctioned (i.e., to have their benefits reduced or canceled) for failing to cooperate with employment services mandates.

At the same time, there have been difficulties in monitoring the attendance of clients referred to some contracted providers of employment services. In addition, with resources limited, employed clients have been given low priority, even if they are working in low-wage, part-time jobs that would qualify them for an extension when they reach the time limit.

Changing the message. Jobs First seeks to shift the welfare system’s focus from income maintenance to self-sufficiency. Welfare eligibility workers, the key contact points between recipients and the system, are critical to any such effort to change the system’s overall “message.” Jobs First aims to facilitate this change by reducing the extent to which staff need to monitor clients’ income. (Such monitoring is less critical because Jobs First’s earned income disregard is structured so that a client’s grant amounts are generally not affected by her earnings.)

Most eligibility staff say that, under the new system, they are more likely to discuss topics related to employment and self-sufficiency during their contacts with clients; in addition, many staff say they are doing more to assist clients in moving toward self-sufficiency. Staff, however, have relatively limited contact with many of their clients, and many have expressed ambivalence about the decreased monitoring of their clients’ income. They believe that this less intense monitoring may result in incorrect benefit amounts (e.g., when clients have earned income that exceeds the poverty level).2

Creating and implementing a pre-time limit review process. Like many other early time limit programs, Jobs First includes special protections for clients who “play by the rules” but cannot find jobs. As shown in Table 1, six-month extensions are granted to clients who make a good-faith effort to find a job, but have family income below the welfare payment standard ($543 per month for a typical family of three) when they reach the time limit or at any point thereafter. Extensions are also granted when circumstances beyond a recipient’s control prevent her from working. The critical challenge in implementing a policy of this kind is to create a review process that is flexible enough to account for individual circumstances but uniform enough to ensure that clients in similar situations receive similar treatment. Moreover, the process must be streamlined enough so that large numbers of cases can be reviewed without placing an undue burden on staff.

Preliminary data indicate that just over one-fourth of early Jobs First enrollees received benefits continuously (or nearly continuously) for 21 months and reached the time limit. The others either left welfare, at least temporarily, or were granted an exemption that stopped their time limit clock. Many of these clients may reach the time limit eventually.

Of those who reached the time limit, about half initially received a six-month extension. A large majority of the extensions were granted because the client had income under the payment standard and was deemed to have made a good-faith effort to find employment. Most of the clients who were denied extensions had income over the payment standard. Very few clients with income below the payment standard were denied extensions (a denial of extension would occur only if the client had failed to make a good-faith effort and was not facing special circumstances that interfered with her ability to work). Some clients, however, had their benefits canceled because they failed to show up for the interview at which extensions are determined; thus, DSS could not ascertain their income.

It is important to note, however, that the statuses at the end of the time limit are not necessarily permanent. Some of the clients who were initially denied an extension were subsequently granted one (usually because their income dropped) and were off assistance for only one to three months. Conversely, some of the clients who received extensions were off welfare only a few months later, in some cases because it was determined that they failed to comply with employment-related requirements during the extension period.

It appears that staff have implemented the review process as it is intended to operate. However, it seems clear that some of the clients who were deemed to have made a good-faith effort were in fact not carefully monitored during their time in the program. Others were thought to have been employed — and thus were not targeted for employment services — when in fact they had failed to inform DSS that they had lost a job. (Under Jobs First’s unusual earned income disregard, clients’ grants are usually not affected when they lose a job.)

Because only a small number of clients with income below the payment standard have had their benefits canceled, there have been relatively few referrals to the “safety net” component set up to ensure that such families’ basic needs are met.