Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

A Trip Back Home: Welfare and Work in Wisconsin

So, I went back home for a vacation a few weeks ago- home for me is Milwaukee, WI. I had a good time, got to see some old friends and (I'm a little embarassed to admit) watched almost the whole first season of Six Feet Under on DVD. What can I say, sometimes the mind just needs a little dulling.

However, in between mind-dulling sessions of the boob tube and friendly reunions, I got a chance to do something relevant to Bread's work: two interviews with people in Milwaukee who have been involved in designing and running the W-2, or welfare, program there, Julie Kerksick of the New Hope Project and Jennifer de Montmollin of the YWCA. For the last three months or so, I've been working on a chapter for the upcoming Hunger Report that is focused on the work-support system, and both Julie and Jennifer are experts at running employment and work programs.

My trip to New Hope was first. Located in a small office in North Milwaukee, New Hope has been around since 1991, when a coalition of non-profits and private funders came together to run an experiment: if they were given support in the form of child care, health care, a wage supplement, and employment services, would people who were jobless and/or poor be able to pull themselves out of poverty? For eight years, the program offered just these supports to a group of 700 people, hiring the research organization MDRC to do a detailed study on the results.   

During our interview, Julie emphasized that the philosophy of the program was to take a positive approach: they assumed that people who came to them wanted to work but were prevented from doing so because of a number of factors, most of which could be traced back to the fact that the jobs that were available to the population they were serving did not offer enough income for participants to cover their basic necessities (child care, health care, etc.).

The findings of MDRC supported this idea. Compared to a control group that was not offered the benefits of the New Hope Project, participants in the program worked longer and more often and experienced less poverty. The children of these participants were more likely to be placed in licensed childcare settings and performed better in school.

New Hope's success is part of what inspired the way that Wisconsin implemented the W-2 program after welfare reform in 1996. Because the idea of welfare reform was to incentivize employment among poor families, it seemed natural that many of the ideas tested by New Hope would resurface in the way the state restructured its social supports. Unlike some other states, support such as child care and health care in Wisconsin is virtually guaranteed to those who are working but don't hold jobs in which they make enough to get by. The W-2 program serves both to help participants find employment and to direct them to these other supports offered by the state.

My second interview, with Jennifer de Montmollin, the director of the W-2 program administered by the Milwaukee YWCA, gave me a clearer picture of how these policies played out. Coming to the YWCA, people applying for the W-2 program are offered a range of services. If they are deemed able to work, they are required to search for a job. Staff members at the YWCA will help them in this search, providing job-search resources and services such as practice interviews. In some cases, the YWCA has also helped direct people looking for W-2 support to training programs.

If a person is deemed unable to work, because of barriers such as domestic violence, substance abuse, poor literacy or a range of other reasons, they are passed through to be given cash assistance through TANF. The YWCA will then work with them to find them a community service job or help them obtain other skills and qualifications that may help them in their job search. Whether they are determined to have barriers to employment or not, participants in the W-2 program are directed to City Hall, where they can apply for Food Stamps, EITC, childcare subsidies, and health benefits offered by the state.

This system has been one of the most successful out of all of the states in helping people into the workforce. In the years since welfare reform, Wisconsin reduced its caseload of welfare recipients by 80%. Today the YWCA, one of the three organizations in Milwaukee that administers the W-2 program, has about 900 cases at any given time, and is continually developing new programs to address the needs of Milwaukee's poor.

Despite these successes, however, when talking with both Jennifer and Julie, it became clear that there is a need in Milwaukee for the W-2 program to refocus its energies towards addressing more fully the issue of people with barriers to work. New Hope, which had ceased running its program shortly after welfare reform was implemented in the state, has begun a new project in recent years that is oriented towards helping people with barriers to employment gain employment through a temporary transitional job program. Participants are monitored for three months at a job with a local organization or employer, then are assisted in finding a job after the initial three-month period. They are given cash bonuses for retaining their permanent job for a time after exiting the program.

The YWCA is able to replicate this kind of program to a certain extent; as I mentioned before, there are community service positions available for those who appear unfit for a permanent job when they first come to the W-2 program. However, some recent changes to the welfare program on the national level have made it harder for the YWCA to perform the function of helping people who might need some extra attention.

In 2005, welfare reform was reauthorized on the federal level with the stipulation that 50 percent of those on W-2 should be in the workforce. For organizations such as the YWCA, this poses a problem, because since the caseload has been reduced by such a large margin, the population making use of the W-2 program today is much more disadvantaged than it was ten years ago. In other words, those who could easily find work are now off of welfare and in the worforce. Those who are on W-2 are likely to have problems that prevent them from gaining and keeping employment.

Furthermore, welfare reauthorization put new limits on the amount of training people in W-2 can receive, restricting the kinds of training they are eligible for and amount of time they could spend taking college courses. Clearly, there is room for improvement in the way we are writing federal TANF policy. My meetings with Jennifer and Julie confirmed for me that there are advocates out there with great ideas about how we can help people become self-sufficient. Hopefully the time will come soon when our federal legislators start listening to them.


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