Step-by-Step Success

Caitlin Johnson
May 28, 2002


The sign says "Career Center" It's a big room with computers hooked up to the Internet, fax machines, a photocopier, a set of phones. The door is open: anyone can come for a job search, anyone can wander over to Kim Patterson or another staff member and ask for help—from setting up a free e-mail account to advice on the best ways to cold-call a potential employer.

The center, part of an innovative welfare-to-work program called Steps to Success, is on the campus of Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, Oregon. But most of the people coming in aren't what you might think of as typical students. Most are parents, and nearly all are there to apply for welfare or food stamps.

First, parents are connected to emergency cash assistance and other benefits they may need. Then, they're given a comprehensive assessment of their skills and job history by Steps to Success staff, and asked what sort of work they're looking for. Next comes a weeklong workforce development workshop that covers resume writing, interviewing and job searching online. There are also daily networking classes, where parents can talk with staff about interviews they've had or jobs they're interested in.

It's all part of a multi-pronged approach to helping parents move from welfare to work. And research suggests it's working.

"What we're doing now in terms of work search and training is the best it's ever been. We're giving people skills they need," says Patterson, who started with Steps to Success 13 years ago, in its second year of operation. "Before, we focused on life skills classes and other things that weren't always useful. Now, we're doing computer training, resume and cover letter writing classes, and taping [mock] interviews to go over techniques. You no longer hear, 'This was a waste of time.' People now say, 'That was really good, I learned a lot.'"

The program uses 7 million dollars of state and federal funds annually, and operates out of two community colleges and 12 welfare offices in the Portland area. Since it's creation in 1998, its served over 50,000 people. Of all the programs evaluated in several recent studies, Steps to Success helped move a greater percentage of parents to work, and a higher number into jobs providing health benefits.

Working Without a Net
Portland's program is an example of the kind of state innovation that proponents of the 1996 welfare reform law envisioned. When Congress changed the structure of the welfare system from a focus on "safety net" supports to work-first initiatives, it passed more power to the states to design programs that fit the specific needs of their populations.

Although efforts vary widely from state to state, several have since created programs that give welfare workers freedom to tailor plans to meet their clients' real needs. Maine's Parents as Scholars program allows parents to attend college and still qualify for cash benefits, childcare and other assistance. Minnesota's Family Investment program focuses on supporting families as they make the switch to work, so they don't automatically lose all cash assistance as their earnings rise. In Riverside, California, a flexible program makes it easier for parents on welfare to obtain education and training that will help them move into better jobs.

Across the country, welfare agencies are partnering with state and community colleges and local nonprofit organizations to design their programs. The obvious question is: what works best, and for whom?

The most comprehensive and rigorous study to date is the National Evaluation of Welfare to Work Strategies (NEWWS). This study was launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1989; a follow-up evaluation ended in March 2002.

Researchers from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) studied 11 programs in seven cities across the country. Parents applying for welfare were randomly assigned to a specific program—either an education-focused program that emphasized skill building; an employment-focused program that pushed people to find work quickly; or a control group where participants were eligible for cash assistance, but were not given education or employment supports or required to work.

The study tracked how children of participants were doing, as well as parents' employment, earnings, access to education and use of services like food stamps, welfare and Medicaid.

The most effective programs, like Portland's, combine education and training with a strong focus on finding good employment, and give caseworkers the ability to tailor plans for individual parents on welfare.

Kim Freeman is the director of workforce development for Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, Oregon, and oversees Steps to Success. The individualized approach is critical, she says.

"People come to welfare for a variety of reasons, and if you only have a one-size-fits-all approach, you'll never reach the large numbers that we have, or provide as much as we can comprehensively," says Freeman. "People have different learning styles, some may learn best on the job, others with a self-paced computer program, and others need mental health help or to get a GED. That's just the way we all live."

Portland's program benefits from a state policy that encourages collaboration between all agencies providing services to eligible families. In each of 16 regions of the state, Oregon's welfare agency contracts with a lead organization to provide a full range of services. In Portland, Mt. Hood Community College and Portland Community College fill that central role as partners. Together, they subcontract with other agencies for specific services.

In other states, there may be as many as 2,000 organizations and agencies working with the state Department of Health and Human Services to provide things like job counseling or childcare assistance.

Increased collaboration in Portland means families can get a range of services in one place. "One of the biggest things that we hear from other states, all the time, is, 'How do you get people into your program? How do you get them into your offices?'" says Freeman. "Well, we're in the [welfare] offices, we have a tight relationship with them. People don't have to go to 15 different locations, one for a computer class, one for GED classes, another to meet with their TANF manager or a job developer. It's all there."

Another promising strategy is the emphasis on holding off for good jobs. Once a parent has received training to improve skills and has taken advantage of job prep and interview workshops, she's encouraged to think carefully about whether a particular job offer meets her child care and transportation needs, and fits her career goals.

"Participants are not supposed to turn jobs down," says Kim Patterson, "but we encourage them to look for what they can and want to do, using their skills, and not apply for, say, fast food jobs just to meet the work search requirements. It's a waste of time." As a result, she says, a lot of people leave the program with higher earnings than they have had before.

It Takes More Than A Job to Raise a Child
The evidence is more than anecdotal. According to the NEWWS study, parents leaving Steps to Success for work typically earned $5,000 per year more than those in the control group.

But new rules being considered by Congress may threaten programs like Steps to Success. The 1996 welfare reform law expires in September 2002, and must be reauthorized before then. The House and Senate must each pass new legislation, and then come together in a committee to agree on a final version.

The Senate has not yet passed a bill. The House bill, based on a Bush administration proposal, passed earlier this month. It raises the number of hours most parents on welfare must work—from 30 to 40 per week for 70 percent of parents on the rolls—and limits access to education and training activities to three months in any two-year period.

Advocates are concerned about the effects of these proposed changes on struggling families. "The people on TANF now tend to have lots of medical issues… Or mental health issues," says Steps to Success' Amy Youngflesh, who supervises worksite training and job readiness workshops. "Getting these folks to work will take a lot of man-hours."

For states, simply documenting and monitoring these proposed new participation rates could become overwhelming. "If programs are given this as the priority, you'd find a diversion of resources and time from things that we know are effective like providing services into trying to keep people active for many, many hours a week and trying to document and find out whether they're actually active," says Gayle Hamilton.

Hamilton encourages policymakers to take a close look at what's going on in communities across the country. "These results should give legislators pause to think about whether programs are as effective as possible," she says.



Caitlin Johnson is a contributing writer to Connect for Kids.