Implementation research typically examines organizations charged with enacting new policies. This paper rather uniquely examines welfare reform from the perspective of both agencies and clients. We aim to better understand and help develop policy responses to front line workers and clients in poverty programs.
This paper highlights and compares themes in qualitative interview data from caseworkers and clients on (1) perceptions of clients' views of changes associated with JET reforms; (2) assessments across “both sides of the desk” of the benefits and limits of specific tools, mandated activities, and procedures, e.g., screening, access to rehabilitation, and sanctions; (3) the frequency and primacy of health and mental health barriers; and (4) predicted impacts of the program in light of the economic downturn.
Methods: The first phase of the evaluation entailed semi-structured interviews through two rounds of site visits to each local area where we met with staff of collaborating agencies to better understand how program components developed. The data focused on how the welfare agencies served deferred and long-term cases; how the work programs individualized education; how rehabilitation services worked; and uses of new forms and procedures. The second phase involved semi-structured telephone interviews with recipients on their program experiences and needs. We investigated whether clients observed JET-related changes in their participation or employment obstacles. The client sample was randomly drawn from state administrative data.
Results. Our analyses found both consistency and discrepancies between worker and client experiences of JET. Within both sets of interviews, many respondents found that several JET objectives were not met. Workers and clients expressed frustration that specific programmatic tools designed to increase efficiency and transparency have actually made the welfare-to-work process more difficult for both sides. There was also dissatisfaction across the desk with the lack of program resources available to clients with multiple needs. And, both sides noted the lack of ability in the program to address the declining economic conditions.
Of the several stark contrasts in worker and client perspectives, we highlight that agency workers commonly believed childcare needs were being well-served, whereas many clients continued to struggle with getting and keeping childcare. Additionally, staff did not recognize or support the educational needs and readiness of clients.
Conclusions and Implications. Too few studies compare and contrast the views of different “stakeholders” situated “where the rubber meets the road.” Poverty policies and programs seem particularly prone to a lack of consideration of and planning for recipients' multiple and complex challenges. We draw lessons for states on designing welfare reforms and for the role of TANF in federal policies to promote a recovering economy.