Research: Disconnect between public assistance recipients and policies designed to assist them with returning to work

January 23, 2021

For more information or to speak with a Bloustein School faculty member about their research, please contact Marcia Hannigan (848) 932-2828.

Amy Dunford-Stenger (Human Insights Lab, The Dock, Accenture), Stephanie Holcomb (John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Rutgers Bloustein School), Andrea Hetling (Rutgers Bloustein School) and Kathy Krepcio (John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Rutgers Bloustein School) are the authors of a new article, “Defining and Pursuing Goals in a Work First Environment: An Analysis of Public Assistance Recipients’ Experience and Perception of Public Policy on the Frontlines” (Human Service Organizations: Management, Leaderships, Governance, Sept. 2020). The paper examines the disconnect between the goals and experiences of welfare recipients and the goals and implementation of the public policies designed to get people back to work.

For many public assistance recipients, engaging in work activities is mandatory to receive benefits. Although the goal of such activities — to assist recipients in finding employment quickly — matches the goal of many recipients, research indicates that few obtain long-term employment. Informed by earlier welfare studies and street-level organization theory, the authors conducted focus groups to understand recipients’ experiences and perceptions of the relationship between frontline public policies and their employment-related goals.

Study findings reveal that recipients perceive rules and services as mismatched with their needs and experience poor communication with staff, leaving them to advocate for themselves and impeding progress. Recipient experiences with frontline service delivery of work first programs strongly indicate that unclear policy goals, overly generalized services, and miscommunication require recipients to self-advocate and ultimately impedes recipient pursuing employment-related goals. The experiences of the focus group participants strongly support the need for public agencies to consider the implementation of individualized, matched services, and supports that are paired with clear communication strategies. Based on the findings, the authors see promise in the introduction of goal setting and coaching models as well as other methods such as improved case management services.

Some states are transitioning to a coaching model for service delivery rather than the traditional case management approach. This can include one-on-one sessions with participants to assess the participants’ needs and goals, and develop a service plan together. New technology, among other resources used by staff, allows coaches and recipients to establish attainable goals, remain focused on goals, learn from experiences, and address barriers. While researchers support the use of goal setting, citing that specific, challenging goals have a greater impact on outcomes than general supportive guidance, they caution against several risks such as too many goals, goals being too narrow or broad, and inappropriate time horizon, which are not always addressed.

Coupled with these findings, the authors recommend that agencies approach implementing changes in casework and coaching with appropriate training and communications with and among the various staff and recipients affected by the changes. In addition to goal setting and coaching models, other methods such as improved case management services would also address the lack of personalized and individualized plans. In New Jersey, agency leadership and staff are currently reviewing strategies to incorporate goal setting at various touchpoints during the case management process.

Recipient engagement is a key factor in program success that should be considered in any program improvement, including goal setting and coaching models. The themes that emerged from this project — goal misalignment, service mismatch, poor communication, and recipient self-advocacy — must be viewed and considered in conjunction. Policy and practice improvement that address one and not the others will likely not resolve the challenges as described by participants in our study. Goal setting or improved intensive case management without changing core program policies, such as work activities and requirements to take accept any job, will ultimately not lead to successful reform.

Unless human capital development and sustainable employment are seen as primary goals of the program, they will remain secondary to immediate work placements. Thus, approaches such as coaching hold even greater promise if implemented in ways that touch on improving policy (goals), programs (services), and administration (communication), and with the support of everyone involved in the program. While states have great leeway and authority over the programmatic and administrative aspects of welfare and workforce policies, the policies themselves are shaped at both the state and federal levels, and non-uniformly implemented throughout each state by local agencies and frontline workers. Considering current debates on work requirements in welfare and benefits programs, federal policymakers should consider these findings and other research that elaborates on the challenges of state agencies and program recipients operating within a labor force attachment model.

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