Welfare Reform and Community Colleges
A Policy and Research Context
For almost as long as there has been welfare, there have been efforts at reform — but none so dramatic as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), passed by Congress in 1996. PRWORA replaced the nation’s primary cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). As a result, welfare recipients can no longer collect benefits indefinitely, and are under strong pressure to find work. Community colleges — which have long been players in helping welfare recipients and other low income people acquire skills and gain entry or advance in the labor force — face new opportunities and challenges in delivering education, training, and other services to the welfare population.
For more than 25 years, MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, has studied the implementation and effects of programs that have attempted to increase self-sufficiency and improve life circumstances of people on welfare. In this paper, we review some major findings and consider their implications for community colleges. We focus in particular on recent findings from the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies (NEWWS), a federally-initiated study that answers two key questions asked by those who run welfare-to-work programs: what works best, and for whom? We also draw upon the early findings from Opening Doors to Earning Credentials, a foundation-sponsored initiative that is looking at ways to eliminate barriers and expand opportunities for welfare recipients and low-wage workers in postsecondary education.