Document date: July 16, 2008
Released online: July 16, 2008
The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.
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Welfare programs require people to work, but some low-income adults struggle with major personal challenges that make it hard to find or hold down a job. In this essay, Loprest and Martinson recommend both short term changes to current programs and longer term efforts through a program for competitive federal matching block grants to states. These grants would support efforts to integrate programs that alleviate barriers to work with employment services and to evaluate these initiatives so policymakers can better understand what works.
Any discussion of promoting work among low-income people must acknowledge that major personal challenges make it extremely difficult for some individuals to find or hold down full-time jobs without any intervention or support. Whether temporary or permanent, such challenges range from mental or physical health problems or disabilities to substance abuse, domestic violence, low literacy, learning disabilities, a criminal record, or the need to care for a disabled child. Some of these obstacles can be resolved or overcome with appropriate services; some can be accommodated with the right employment match.
Many people with one or more of these challenges work. However, studies have shown that as a group, individuals facing these challenges are less likely to be employed or steadily employed and more likely than other people to rely on public benefits (Loprest and Zedlewski 2006). And part-time work is all some can manage. All these challenges are compounded for parents still caring for children.
These families’ employment rates and well-being might be improved by investments in programs to help challenged individuals join the workforce. But few current public services for this group entail work supports, particularly those that address families’ needs for child care and income subsidies. Complicating matters, information on which programs work for these individuals is limited.Against this backdrop, we propose an agenda for moving more low-income parents with challenges into work. We first determine how many people may need work supports and review the available public services with an eye to their limitations and the challenges involved. We then analyze the available evidence on the effectiveness and costs of various approaches to better outcomes for this population. We then discuss several promising conceptual approaches to supporting work for these people, highlighting some current programs. Our proposals call for short-term modifications to current program regulations, a mechanism for investing more in promoting experimentation and in evaluating new service models, replication of successful approaches, and longer-term systemic changes to better help employment-challenged parents.
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