From Welfare Check to Paycheck

Transitional jobs programs are wage-based work and skill development programs designed to promote employment among those who have little or no work experience. In this model, participants work at short-term, publicly subsidized jobs that combine real work, skill development, and support services to help them overcome substantial barriers to employment. Because participants earn paychecks rather than welfare grants, they pay into Social Security and qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which gives them greater economic security. The transitional jobs model is growing in strength across the nation, with over 30 programs in rural, urban, and suburban areas of the country.

Washington State’s Community Jobs program (CJ) sets a precedent as the nation’s first and largest transitional jobs program for “hard-to-employ” welfare recipients. During the nine-month program, participants work 20 hours a week and earn a paycheck for the hours they work at local nonprofit or public agencies. In their remaining 20 hours each week, participants receive support, services and mentoring to resolve barriers to work. They also access subsidized education, work readiness, and vocational training opportunities.

Federal authorization for current welfare reform legislation will expire in September 2002, and the debate around reauthorization is already well underway in Congress and around the nation. The conclusion of this five-year welfare reform experiment allows policy makers to learn from the successes and failures of current welfare reform programs in planning new legislation. As a transitional jobs pioneer, the Community Jobs program provides a unique opportunity to analyze this model’s ability to deliver on its goal of moving individuals with significant barriers into long-term employment.

To this end, the Economic Opportunity Institute coordinated two research studies on the Community Jobs program. The first study, performed in conjunction with the Washington State Office of Trade and Economic Development (OTED), conducted qualitative research to better understand the barriers that impact the ability of CJ participants to find and keep employment. This study found that the typical CJ participant is a 31-year-old single mom on welfare with two children, no high school degree, less than one year of prior job experience, and many personal issues ranging from lack of transportation and debt to an unstable housing situation or domestic violence. Average CJ participants are dealing simultaneously with eight such barriers to employment, placing them squarely among the least job ready of all welfare recipients.

The second study utilized data on earnings to determine the employment patterns of CJ participants after they leave the program. Findings from this study demonstrate that a majority of participants are moving quickly into the workforce after CJ. Although average earnings are low, they increase by 60% during their first two years in the workforce, representing a real increase in income for the working family.  Average earnings progression can be even more rapid for the many post-CJ workers that work consistently after leaving the program and for those that find jobs in promising sectors. In addition, CJ participants are steadily leaving welfare in the two years after entering the program.

By analyzing this combination of qualitative and quantitative data, researchers evaluated the program model for the population it is designed to serve. Recommendations for enhancing both the CJ program  and the transitional jobs model of work, training, and support to advance low-income workers include:  1) streamline the participant’s transition into the workforce, 2) providing retention and advancement  services, 3) ensuring adequate funding for support services and CJ availability, 4) continuing the  emphasis on an individualized and intensive case management approach, and 5) maintaining the  essential income supports and training programs that enable participants to successfully move forward on  a career and wage ladder.

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