Washington Works

Sustaining a Vision of Welfare Reform Based on Personal Change, Work Preparation, and Employer Involvement

| Susan Gooden

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 ended the 60-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) Program and replaced it with block grants to states known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The law gives states great flexibility in using TANF funds but also includes strict work requirements and time limits on welfare recipients’ receipt of federally funded cash benefits. These changes intensify the need for innovative approaches to encourage and assist welfare recipients in their move toward employment and economic self-sufficiency.

In response to these new challenges, MDRC is conducting the Connections to Work project with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. With a focus on cutting-edge initiatives, the project aims to assist emerging public-private partnerships, local organizations, and agencies plan for change and to develop practical lessons on new approaches to the provision of employment services.

This case study — the second in the Connections to Work series — is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. It tells the story of Washington Works, a nonprofit, Seattle-based organization founded in 1992. Washington Works’ founders were committed to a distinctive philosophy of “personal transformation” — teaching low-income women how to think differently about themselves as a crucial step toward improving their lives and the lives of their children. This philosophy informs the program’s courses, which include personal effectiveness training, basic skills training, office skills development, and job-search strategies. Washington Works has secured welfare recipients job placements with above-average entry-level earnings by building strong relationships with local employers. Finally, to help women make a successful transition from welfare to work, the organization provides support services for its graduates once they have been placed in a job.

This case study traces the inspiration, development, and growing pains of a nonprofit organization founded and run by individuals who were new to the welfare service delivery world, and provides lessons to others who are considering similar welfare-to-work strategies. These lessons include the importance of developing positive relationships with public agencies, obtaining employer input in program design, maintaining solid relationships with employers, and understanding the tensions between an organization’s visionary founders and its day-to-day administrators.

For a full copy of this publication, please contact [email protected].