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Hard-To-Employ Welfare Recipients Focus of Senate Hearing

On April 25, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy held a hearing to examine the barriers that make some welfare recipients difficult to employ and to consider strategies to increase employment opportunities for those hard-to-employ individuals.

“As we undertake the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law (P.L. 104-193), Congress must pay particular attention to those who remain on welfare,” noted Subcommittee Chair John Breaux (D-LA). “It is estimated that as many as 64 percent of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients have one or more characteristics that make them extremely difficult to employ,” he said, listing factors such as mental and physical impairments, a child with a disability, limited English proficiency, low education, substance abuse, and domestic violence as “barriers to employment.”

Witnesses at the hearing described various programs designed to address the needs of hard-to-employ TANF recipients. Natasha Metcalf of the Tennessee Department of Human Services discussed her state’s Family First initiative, a counseling program “that addresses domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health, learning disabilities, and children’s health and behavioral problems.” She testified that “200,000 families have been served” since the program’s inception.

In particular, she highlighted the federal waiver that allows the state to “stop the time clock for the month that a participant is assessed.” She added, “The clock may be stopped for additional months based on the severity of the barrier.”

She also commented on the President’s proposal to allow “states to count families engaged in substance abuse treatment or rehabilitation activities toward work participation requirements for three consecutive months in a 24-month period.” She urged the committee to uphold “these proposed changes that recognize the flexibility states need to succeed with hard-to-employ participants in our caseload.”

Stephanie Smith of Goodwill Industries of Southern Arizona testified that the mission of her organization is to find jobs for people with barriers to employment. These barriers include “welfare dependency, limited academics, lack of work experience, substance abuse, and lack of English proficiency.”

Programs run by Goodwill provide industry-specific job skills training as well as those that address the life or soft skills that “often prevent otherwise qualified individuals from successfully maintaining employment.”

Ms. Smith described the “Everyday Business Etiquette” program, a two-week workshop that focuses on “listening skills, interpersonal skills, and how to be a team player.” The “Career Preparation Services” program is a three-week workshop that “covers work ethics and dependability, adapting to change, interview techniques, and how to keep a job.” Goodwill also runs a job placement service that assists hard-to-employ individuals in finding a job, as well as a 90-day job retention service to help new employees adjust to their work environment.

Additionally, Ms. Smith told the subcommittee, “Congress partnered with Goodwill in Florida and Louisiana by authorizing a capitalization demonstration project in the 1996 welfare reform authorization bill.” She emphasized that “these projects were tremendously successful in meeting their targets in placing the hardest to serve.” She urged the subcommittee to continue the capitalization strategy as a “viable tool that Congress could use to allow business model non-profits to meet these needs in a broader and more immediate fashion.”

David Butler of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation addressed four main points in his testimony. He described the characteristics of the hard-to-employ, what has been learned from research about how to improve employment opportunities for people with employment barriers, models taken from extensive research on the best programs for hard-to-employ populations, and the implications for TANF reauthorization.

He commented on several of the proposals in the President’s welfare plan, specifically the provisions to increase the state work participation rate to 70 percent and the increase from 30 to 40 required hours by welfare recipients. He called these proposals “a potentially costly undertaking that is unlikely to help the hard-to-employ and would absorb much of the time and effort needed to strengthen programs for this population.” He also told the subcommittee that the administration’s proposal to allow up to three months of alcohol or drug abuse treatment rehabilitation to count towards the participation standard “does not recognize the importance of treatment services in promoting employment for some TANF participants.”

He recommended an alternative approach that “might establish a goal of universal engagement for the welfare caseload, but with broader definitions of allowable activities and flexible hours requirements for a core group of recipients deemed hard-to-employ.”

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