Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16526 Welfare Reform Turns 15: Impacting Policy and Practice for the Future

Thursday, January 12, 2012: 2:30 PM
Independence D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Mary Beth Vogel-Ferguson, PhD, Principle Investigator, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
2011 marks the 15th anniversary of reforms introduced through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) federal welfare program. State TANF Directors still struggle to match policies and programs to client needs. While many describe participants at specific points in time, few explore this very dynamic population as a whole. Such information is essential for policy and front-line practice to be effective. The Family Employment Program (FEP) Study of Utah was an exploratory longitudinal study designed collaboratively by state administrators and researchers to 1) provide a broad profile (demographics, family background, employment history, supports/barriers, etc.) of participants at entry, 2) monitor use of cash assistance over time to predict long-term benefit receipt, and 3) provide data for policy development and program redesigns to better serve TANF recipients. From January through September 2006 a monthly random sample of first time TANF recipients were contacted. In-person, in-home interviews were conducted with 1144 recipients (65% response rate). A concurrent triangulation strategy for data collection was employed by embedding open-ended questions into the quantitative survey. This same cohort was contacted for follow-up at 12-month intervals in 2007 (N = 923) and 2008 (N = 813). Administrative data from 2006-2010 regarding cash assistance usage were also evaluated. Data for non-respondents were evaluated with no significant differences identified. Following univariate level analysis, associations between criterion and predictor variables (as suggested in the literature) were examined using appropriate bivariate tests. Binary logistic regression was used to identify predictor variables associated with the months of cash assistance received. Qualitative data were analyzed using content analysis. Study findings presented a profile of recipients, challenging long held beliefs regarding TANF recipients. The profile revealed higher education and stronger work histories than previously believed. Half of new participants sought assistance after reduction or loss of their own earned income. The primary frustrations of FEP recipients included a perceived lack of focus on employment, few pathways for increasing employability, and greater focus on federal reporting requirements than individual needs. The regression analysis identified current/recent employment, no past family welfare receipt, currently/previously married, not currently in school, and regular telephone access as factors predicting short-term cash assistance receipt. During the 60-month evaluation period, 54.7% had only one episode of cash assistance lasting 12 months or less. This is the “typical” welfare recipient. Over the same 60 months only 6.2% received more than 24 months of benefits. Results of this study were presented annually to state TANF administrators and front-line workers, informing program development and daily interactions with clients. By serving the research needs of policy makers and providing data in a timely fashion, these data served as the foundation for the complete redesign of Utah's cash assistance program (FEP). Participants are now recognized as “job-seekers”and provided services based on a work-first model as suggested in the study recommendations. This presentation provides conference attendees with a new lens through which to view welfare recipients, and examples of processes allowing research to significantly influence the creation of policy and evidence-based practice in the future.
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