Welfare and the Underappreciated Value of Long-Term Thinking

A new approach asks recipients to look past short-term work and instead focus on making choices that will improve the rest of their lives.
by | October 2016
Shelanda McHie is a single mom getting help from a welfare-to-work program in Ramsey County, Minn. (Photos by David Kidd)

Shelanda McHie came to the welfare office bearing good news. Applebee’s had given her more shifts. On her previous visit to the office, she had reported that the restaurant had cut back her hours to 25 a week. Now, with Applebee’s and some shifts she had picked up at a second job, she was back above 40 hours again.

“Are you? Awesome!” said Lisa Lee, her employment counselor. “That’s what we’ve been working towards. Congratulations!” Lee’s cubicle was peppered with positive affirmations. One said, “You are capable of more than you know.” Another read, “Dear weary mom, you are courageous.”

McHie is 34. She is a single mother of seven children, and she is trying to raise all of them by herself. Her Chevy Suburban is almost 20 years old, and just the other day, it stalled at an intersection on her way to a new job. She says she gave it a second and prayed to God. The car came back to life. In the past three years, she left an abusive boyfriend, gave birth to her youngest boy and lost a sister. “I have days up and low,” she says. “I’ve never prayed so much in my life.”

A few years ago, McHie’s visit to a counselor in Ramsey County, Minn., would have looked quite different. She would have walked in and simply handed over a job log showing how much time she had spent working or looking for work. The counselor would have checked to see that McHie had met her required hours. If the count was too low, the counselor could have fined her up to 30 percent of her welfare benefits. The conversation would have been short. The county didn’t do much counseling in those days. The meetings were compliance checks.

McHie receives money through a federal welfare program that requires her to fill out monthly timesheets, a result of the 1996 welfare reform law that emphasized work as the key to escaping poverty. To make sure people were using those public dollars to find jobs, every state had to report a work participation rate, a statistic calculated though the meticulous monitoring of the individual timesheets. “I felt like a number,” McHie says, “just somebody they had to get off the system.”

Today, Lee and other Ramsey County counselors aren’t pushing their clients to get a job as quickly as possible. Employment is still the goal, but they are working with the clients to draft long-term plans. The plans are broken down into steps, and the steps are divided into manageable chunks.

Before, counselors told their clients what they needed to do. Now it’s more of an interview. Lee asks questions to guide the conversation, but McHie charts her own career path. Her dream is to run her own restaurant. Next year, she hopes to enroll in a certificate program for managers. But first, she needs to take a class in basic computer skills. Computers terrify her; her children have to help her use the Internet.

“What will it look like when you’ve reached a point of success?” Lee asks.

“When I call the shots,” McHie replies.

“‘When I call the shots,’” Lee says, mulling over the answer. “I like that.”

"What will it look like when you've reached a point of success?" asks employment counselor Lisa Lee, right.

Meetings like the one between McHie and Lee are a departure from the way most states and localities approach job assistance for people on welfare. Ramsey County is part of a national movement to redefine what success is in a welfare-to-work program. They’re using more nuanced performance measures, and they’re asking clients to be the ones who map a path out of poverty.

The overhaul begins with the federal work participation rate. In much of the country, this rate is the only way welfare agencies grade their own performance, so caseworkers do what they can to keep the participation numbers as high as possible. Kate Probert, who manages employment services for Ramsey County’s welfare program, doesn’t want caseworkers focusing just on that federal requirement. It is still something the county has to report, but in the last few years, she and her staff have identified a range of outcomes that they consider to be more important: not just employment but also job retention, educational attainment and active engagement with counselors to create a work plan. Counselors now pay less attention to the participation rate and more attention to whether their clients make progress in those other areas.

Under Probert, the county is also trying to address the common barriers that prevent welfare recipients from keeping a job. In some cases, those barriers are logistical, such as finding child care and reliable transportation. But her staff has become interested in another potential barrier: how the brain processes information, or fails to. Many people on public assistance have spent years in poverty, where their immediate concerns are whether they can afford next month’s rent or heating bill. Some research suggests that those kind of high-stress environments can short-circuit coping and organizational skills that contribute to a person’s success in the workplace. So job counselors in Ramsey County are providing their clients with tips to reduce stress.

Probert and her staff are arguing that effective job assistance requires a better understanding of the individuals on welfare -- how they got there and what’s keeping them from leaving the system. For the last two decades, job assistance for welfare didn’t take into account clients’ education or readiness to work. It assumed that if government pushed them to get a job, they’d stay employed, increase their earnings and eventually leave welfare. But for some families, finding work wasn’t enough.

“If we really want to break the cycle of poverty, the reality is that a lot of our families are coming from a history of trauma, a history of poverty and of growing up without role models,” says Andrew Freeberg, a workforce development director at Goodwill, one of Ramsey County’s vendors. “We have to do something different.”

Under Kate Probert, counselors pay more attention to their client's progress in employment, job retention and educational attainment.

No state has done more than Minnesota in rethinking how it measures success in a welfare-to-work program, and no place in the state has been more willing to build upon those efforts than Ramsey County. Between its exhaustive tracking of performance measures and its heavy focus on empowering the client, the county is at the forefront of a “grassroots revolution” in workforce programs, says Michelle Derr, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. “I think we’re in a totally new era,” Derr says. “When we look nationally, there are a lot of programs that can get people jobs, but they don’t keep them.”

Part of what’s different about Ramsey County is the extra emphasis on long-term trajectory. In most welfare agencies, according to Derr, “people are so focused on participation [in mandated activities] and not on progress.” In Ramsey County, job assistance “isn’t just about showing up, it’s about movement. You have to make progress.”

The 1996 welfare reform law placed a lifetime cap on how long families could receive welfare, so parents felt pressure to find work before the checks stopped coming. The upper limit was 60 months, though states could lower the cap, and many have.

Congress also introduced a strict reporting requirement in its welfare reform. Each state had to show that at least half of its families on welfare spent a minimum number of hours on countable work-related activities. If they didn’t, the federal government could cut the state’s welfare funding. States that reduce the number of people on their welfare rolls receive a credit that makes a lower work participation rate acceptable. Most states manage to reduce their caseloads enough to receive credits. In 2014, the national work participation rate among welfare recipients was about 36.6 percent.

Paid employment isn’t the only way to meet the work activity requirement. Welfare recipients can also report the hours they spend getting trained for work, doing unpaid work, volunteering in the community or searching for jobs. For the most part, people on welfare can’t count school as an activity. After one year of vocational education, people have to combine any additional schooling with at least 20 hours a week of something more closely tied to immediate employment.

Members of Congress hoped that once people were working, they would make enough money to stay off public assistance. For some, that approach proved effective. In the late 1990s, when the economy was booming, the work-first orientation did coincide with a dramatic reduction in welfare caseloads and an increase in employment. But even under favorable economic circumstances, the participation rate doesn’t actually show whether people kept jobs or increased their earnings, and so states aren’t held accountable for improving those results. As a consequence, states don’t have much of an incentive to invest in the most intensive and long-lasting forms of job assistance.  

In fact, many of the people who find work while on welfare don’t stay employed very long and don’t get paid enough to cover their family’s living expenses. Last year in Ramsey County, nearly 26 percent of the people who left welfare returned within

12 months, which was consistent with the rest of Minnesota. “People tend to cycle through the system, getting the same type of jobs,” Probert says. In 2015, when people found work, their median wage was $11 an hour, a relatively small sum for a single mom caring for at least one child -- the main demographic among welfare recipients in the state.

According to the federal standard for work participation, Minnesota is a success. It has met its target in all but one of the last 13 years. But state lawmakers recognize that the federal target rate doesn’t tell them much about whether residents are becoming financially independent. That’s why they created another measure called the self-support index, which looks at how people are faring three years after first receiving assistance. Using those parameters, every county reports the percentage of people who are either working at least 30 hours a week or earning enough so that they no longer qualify for cash benefits. In 2015, about two-thirds of the people who had received three years of assistance met those criteria.

The idea behind the index is that if the state holds counties to a more meaningful standard, they might improve their job services for people on welfare. Better measurement will drive better services and results. Probert and her team were thinking along the same lines when they announced in 2014 that they would add new performance measures just for Ramsey County aimed at long-term employment and independence from the welfare system. The measures fall into one of four categories: employment, employment retention, education or engagement. If people get jobs, keep jobs, increase their education and meet regularly with job counselors, Probert believes they will no longer need public assistance.

Her agency and its contractors keep track of more than 20 indicators that feed into one of those four main categories. The list is comprehensive. There’s a target for how many welfare recipients are working at least 87 hours per month. There’s another target for people who were working when they left welfare and are still working three months later. There’s one for people who create an employment plan with their counselor within three months of joining the welfare rolls. In contrast to the federal work requirement, the county includes educational advancement as part of its monthly report card, calling for a third of those without a high school diploma or GED to be taking at least 20 hours of classes per month.

This last measure is particularly important because one of the reasons welfare recipients have trouble finding better-paying jobs is inadequate education. Almost 40 percent of Minnesota parents on welfare don’t have a high school degree or a GED. About 10 percent never reached high school. Less than 1 percent finished college. The positions available to these people tend to pay entry-level wages and don’t come with paid sick leave or other health benefits that can be critical for a single parent.

Counselor Nicki Hason, right, asks her client Kyla Blomquist about her career and education goals.

If the first half of Ramsey County’s model focuses on system-wide goals, the second half focuses on the personal goals of each individual on welfare. All the counselors have been trained as coaches, which means they spend less time checking timesheets and more time interviewing people about their aspirations. “Instead of forcing you into compliance, it’s more respectful,” says Derr. “It’s about saying, ‘Where are you now and where can we take you?’”

Together, the counselor and client devise a long-term employment plan, but they also fill out worksheets with incremental goals that dovetail into the larger plan. One client in the Goodwill office, Tannasia McCollum-Mayfield, wants to become a hairdresser. She already does children’s hair in the neighborhood and she’s proud of her natural talent. “My hands work magic,” she says.

She wants to go to cosmetology school, and that means paying back some of her existing student loans; she is currently in default with the bank and can’t take out new loans for new training. Her counselor is helping her think through the steps she would need to take: First find child care, then a job. McCollum-Mayfield has visited several child-care providers, but didn’t like them. She considered having a neighbor watch her son until the counselor pressed her with a series of questions. Was the neighbor licensed? Had the neighbor received training in CPR? What kind of prior experience did the neighbor have in caring for other people’s children? The welfare program could help cover child-care expenses, but only for a licensed provider, or one that went through an extensive vetting process. They agreed that she would visit at least two more providers before their next meeting.

They needed to figure out the child-care situation because McCollum-Mayfield was waiting to hear back from Comcast about a call center position. She could have an interview within the week. It would pay about $13 an hour. “This is a job you’re interested in doing?” the counselor asked. “Have you looked at any other jobs?” McCollum-Mayfield said she wanted to be on the phone and helping people. She had also applied to a few other places. Her top choice was an opening with the Salvation Army.

“You’ve been busy,” the counselor said.

“I wanted to surprise you so you’d be happy,” McCollum-Mayfield said, “so you know I’m not just sitting on my butt.”

Tannasia McCollum-Mayfield, left, talks with her employment coach about her job applications and difficulties finding child care.

Some of what the counselors do is motivational interviewing. Their questions guide the conversation and flesh out what the client wants. They also do goal-setting exercises. The newest technique Ramsey County’s counselors are using is a self-assessment developed by psychologists Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, authors of the book Smart but Scattered. The book distills research on how stress and trauma can hamper children’s brain development, and explains how the lessons apply to adults as well. When people are sleep-deprived or stressed, they have trouble thinking clearly. If they understand how their thought process gets disrupted, they can develop coping mechanisms. Ramsey County is testing the hypothesis that if people identify their stress-based weaknesses and learn to manage them, they’ll have an easier time at work.

Counselors introduce the self-assessment in their meetings with clients, so that they can go over the instructions together and discuss the results. The test shows people’s strengths and weaknesses in how they process and manage information, funneling responses into several skill categories, such as organization, goal-directed persistence and flexibility. It’s rare for anyone to be good at all 11 skills. All the counselors take the test themselves first.  

The county provides a list of tips people can employ to manage their weaker skills, such as using a planner or setting their clock 10 minutes fast. Counselor Nicki Hanson had one client take the test and found she had low emotional control. They talked about pausing for a moment before reacting to a stressful situation. The client could call Hanson if she felt overwhelmed and needed to discuss the pros and cons of making a decision. Not too long after, the client encountered some crises at work. “She almost quit seven times in a week,” Hanson says, but the tricks they discussed helped prevent an overreaction. The test “enlightened me to what she was going to need.”

"I know what I want in life," says Ron'Nesha Johnson, a client who has embraced Ramsey County's goal-centric employment assistance model.

It’s too early to say whether Ramsey County’s new approach to job assistance will be any better than traditional employment counseling. The county has been coming in above the state performance targets and has earned bonus payment to its welfare agency two years in a row. By other measures, the picture is less clear. Engagement with job counselors is up slightly compared to 2014, but the data don’t show an increase in schooling.

Even if the shift to coaching is ultimately successful, it will come with growing pains. Not everyone is cut out for the intensive and nuanced form of counseling that Probert is pushing. The ideal hire for an employment counselor used to be someone who could scour timesheets and sanction rule-breakers. Those people were organized and detail-oriented. Freeberg, the workforce director at Goodwill, says he used to steer clear of applicants with a social work background because it wasn’t a good fit for the position. Now he finds that social workers are better prepared for the job.

Where Probert and her team are noticing an improvement is in the perceptions of the counselors. “It’s probably the best time to work in this industry,” says Angela Cardella, who supervises counselors in Ramsey County. “The old way was so production-like. It’s not so scripted anymore. We don’t talk sanctions. For years, that’s all I did.”

Amanda Lindbom, another counselor, remembers when her focus was entirely on the work participation rate. “I was in a depression,” she says. “It was all about the paperwork and entering hours. It wasn’t about the person.”

In the past, Probert says, “we never talked about dreams.” Dreams are personal and usually involve a long, complicated path. Job assistance for people on welfare used to have a much simpler objective: “Go get a job.”

Ron’Nesha Johnson, a 22-year-old single mom, is an example of what can happen when employment assistance is about more than immediate employment. Her counselor, Tracy Olson, helped her find transportation subsidies and child care for her daughter. They drafted a plan for Johnson to become a medical technician, and in less than a year, she had the training she needed and a job in hand. She’s already looking at nursing classes she can take at night. By age 25, Johnson would like to be her own boss. “I know what I want in life,” she says.