Implementation and Early Impacts of Jobs First, Connecticut's Welfare Reform Initiative
Connecticut’s Jobs First program is a statewide welfare reform initiative that began operating in January 1996. Jobs First was one of the earliest statewide programs to impose a time limit on welfare receipt: Families are limited to 21 months of cash assistance unless they receive an exemption or extension. The program also includes generous financial work incentives and requires recipients to participate in employment-related services targeted toward rapid job placement. Jobs First was initiated under waivers of federal welfare rules that were granted before the passage of the 1996 federal welfare law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or PRWORA); how the program fares over time may provide important lessons on the likely results of welfare reforms implemented in other parts of the country in response to the federal law.
This report has been prepared as part of a large-scale evaluation of Jobs First being conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). The evaluation is funded under a contract with the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) — the agency that administers Jobs First — and with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Ford Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. The study focuses on two welfare offices — Manchester and New Haven — which together include more than one-fourth of the state’s welfare caseload. MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a quarter century’s experience designing and evaluating programs and policies for low-income individuals, families, and communities.
This is the third publication in the Jobs First evaluation. The earlier reports, completed in 1997 and 1998, examined the implementation of Jobs First during its first two years of program operations. This report updates the implementation story, and also includes the first information about Jobs First’s impacts — that is, the difference Jobs First makes relative to the outcomes generated by the welfare system that preceded it. To facilitate this assessment, between January 1996 and February 1997 several thousand welfare applicants and recipients (most of them single mothers) were assigned, at random, to one of two groups: the Jobs First group, whose members are subject to the welfare reform policies, and the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) group, whose members are subject to the prior welfare rules. Because people were assigned to the groups through a random process, any differences that emerge between the two groups over time — for example, in employment rates or average family income — can reliably be attributed to Jobs First.
The report follows early enrollees in the two groups for up to two and a half years, slightly beyond the point when Jobs First group members began reaching the time limit. The study’s final report, scheduled for 2001, will follow all members of the groups for up to four years, and will be accompanied by a separate document describing the impacts of Jobs First for children.
Highlights of the Findings
Key findings from this report include the following:
- The main features of Jobs First were successfully put in place in the research sites, but the program has not been implemented very intensively. Survey data show that Jobs First group members heard a more employment-focused message from the welfare system than did AFDC group members. In addition, a large majority of Jobs First group members were aware of the key program features: the time limit and the financial work incentives. Finally, the Jobs First group was more likely than the AFDC group to participate in employment-related activities, particularly activities aimed at rapid job placement. At the same time, owing to start-up problems and certain features of the program design (for example, limited contact between staff and clients), recipients’ participation in employment-related activities was not closely monitored, and some aspects of the program message were not strongly reinforced.
- Most Jobs First group members did not reach the time limit within two and a half years after enrollment. Of those who did, about half were granted an extension. Most of those whose cases were closed at the time limit were employed. About two-fifths of the Jobs First group reached the time limit within two and a half years after enrollment; the others still had months remaining because they had left welfare or were temporarily exempted from the time limit. Over half of those who reached the time limit and attended a time limit review meeting had income below the welfare payment standard (the maximum grant for their family size) at that point, and almost all of them were granted at least one six-month extension. Conversely, most of those whose cases were closed at the time limit were working and had income above the payment standard. Overall, roughly one-fifth of Jobs First group members’ cases were closed because of the time limit within the two-and-a-half-year follow-up period.
- Jobs First increased employment rates and earnings throughout the follow-up period; impacts were particularly large for the least job-ready clients. Just under 82 percent of Jobs First group members were employed at some point within two and a half years after enrollment compared with 74 percent of the AFDC group. In addition, Jobs First group members’ total earnings were about 11 percent higher. But the averages mask an important pattern: Jobs First nearly doubled the employment rate for those facing multiple barriers to employment — a group that was not targeted for services prior to Jobs First — and generated almost no increase in employment or earnings for the most job-ready (although it did increase welfare receipt for the latter group).
- In the first part of the study period, Jobs First substantially increased both welfare receipt and family income; as individuals began to reach the time limit, the program began to reduce welfare receipt and the income gains diminished. As expected, the Jobs First group received more welfare than the AFDC group in the early part of the study period; the financial incentive allowed many working families to continue receiving benefits. Since Jobs First group members also had higher earnings, their combined income from public assistance and earnings was substantially higher than that of the AFDC group; they were also more likely to have savings and to own cars. The pattern changed abruptly when they began reaching the time limit: In the last part of the study period, the Jobs First group received substantially less welfare than the AFDC group, and the lower welfare benefits began to offset the Jobs First group’s higher earnings. Thus, in the last three months of the follow-up period, the two groups had about the same total income. The Jobs First group, however, derived a greater share of its income from earnings — a key goal of the program. Data on participants’ income brackets during this three-month period suggest that Jobs First caused some families to be worse off financially and other families to be better off than they would have been without the program.
Although these findings are encouraging in many respects, it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about how Jobs First will ultimately affect eligible families or government budgets. The longer-term picture will probably continue to improve from the budgetary perspective because the program started to reduce public assistance spending after families began reaching the time limit. But the future is more uncertain for participants, given the income trends that emerged at the end of the follow-up period.