The Effectiveness of Different Approaches for Moving Cash Assistance Recipients to Work: Findings from the Job Search Assistance Strategies Evaluation

Publication Date: November 2, 2020
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Introduction

Research Questions

  1. What are the differences in the frequency, mode, and content of the employment-related services received by TANF applicants and recipients in the two programs studied in each site?
  2. What are the differential impacts of the two programs in each site on employment and earnings outcomes?
  3. What are the differential impacts of the two programs in each site on public benefit receipt? Specifically, what is the effect on receipt of TANF and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits?

This paper summarizes the findings from an evaluation of the relative effectiveness of different approaches to assisting individuals applying for or receiving cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in finding and keeping jobs. It also discusses the implications of these findings for policymakers, program administrators, and researchers. The evaluation, called the Job Search Assistance Strategies (JSA) evaluation, was conducted in three sites—Genesee and Wayne Counties in Michigan; New York City; and Sacramento County in California. The evaluation uses an experimental design: in each of the three sites, TANF applicants or recipients were randomly assigned to one of two programs providing employment-related services (primarily job search assistance). The study measured “differential impacts,” or differences in outcomes between individuals assigned to each of the two programs in each site, comparing their employment, earnings, and public benefit receipt.

The two programs evaluated were different in each of the three sites in the study. The New York City and Sacramento County sites are most similar in that they compared programs with more and less demanding participation requirements, although the New York City site served cash assistance applicants and the Sacramento County site served cash assistance recipients. The evaluation in Michigan compared a new goal-oriented coaching program that was designed to help cash assistance applicants and recipients identify employment-related goals and break them into smaller, achievable tasks to one that focused on participation in activities to meet the federal work participation requirement.

The JSA evaluation finds that, for the most part, there were no detectable effects on employment, earnings, and receipt of public benefits over a two-quarter (six-month) follow-up period in any of the sites. While the programs resulted in many of the expected changes in service receipt, none of programs studied were able to alter the employment levels and earnings trajectories of this disadvantaged population of cash assistance applicants and recipients.

Purpose

The TANF program provides cash assistance to low-income families with children, as well as employment-related services to help them increase their earnings and reduce their public benefit receipt. Balancing the provision of cash assistance with individual responsibility, TANF requires states to engage a target share of work-eligible cash assistance recipients in a specified set of employment-related activities, primarily job search assistance, as a condition of benefit receipt. In addition, some states and localities provide employment-related assistance (and require participation in those activities) during the application process. The approaches that states and localities use to provide job search and other employment services in TANF programs vary widely and differ in their content, service delivery mode, and duration and intensity of services.

Past studies have shown that job search assistance services provided as part of a cash assistance program are effective in increasing employment, primarily by helping people find jobs more quickly. But the effects on earnings have been modest, and many families remain in poverty despite the assistance provided. Moreover, job search assistance can be implemented in different ways— in for example group classes, one-on-one, or in self-directed activities—but there is little evidence regarding which ways are more effective. To help bridge this knowledge gap, the JSA evaluation was launched in 2015 to identify and rigorously test different approaches to helping TANF applicants and recipients find jobs.

Key Findings and Highlights

Impacts on Service Receipt

  • In all three sites, participation in employment-related services, particularly job search assistance, was high, with no differences detected between the program groups.
  • In all three sites, the different approaches resulted in some expected differences in the mode, frequency, and content of job search assistance services received by study participants, although some of the differences were small.
  • The more demanding programs and the goal-oriented coaching program generally increased the receipt of assistance on job search skills and/or workplace behaviors and soft skills as expected given their program design.

Impacts on Employment, Earnings, and Public Assistance Receipt

  • In all three sites, there were no detectable impacts on employment (the confirmatory outcome) or earnings over the six-month follow-up period.
  • Among those who worked during the follow-up period, earnings were low in all three sites.
  • In New York City, the more demanding participation requirement reduced the proportion of applications that were approved for cash assistance.
  • In Michigan and Sacramento County, no impacts on the receipt of cash assistance or SNAP benefits were detected.
  • In New York City and Michigan, no differences in job quality as measured by the characteristics of study participant’s current or most recent jobs, including wages and benefits, were detected. In Sacramento County, there were impacts on some measures related to job quality.
  • Across all three sites, the cash assistance applicants and recipients were a disadvantaged population with low earnings prior to study enrollment, and none of the programs evaluated resulted in changes in their earning trajectories.

Implications of Findings

  • Different approaches can be used to achieve similar employment and public benefit outcomes for cash assistance recipients. Given that no one approach yielded unambiguously stronger results, other considerations, such as cost or program preferences, may appropriately drive choices in providing employment-related assistance as part of cash assistance programs.
  • The evidence from New York City suggests that a program with a more demanding participation requirement as part of its cash assistance application can reduce the proportion of applicants meeting the requirements for approval. As a result, the more demanding program reduced their cash assistance receipt.
  • The programs with higher operational costs did not yield better employment, earnings, or public benefit outcomes.

Methods

Conducted between 2015 and 2018, the JSA evaluation used a random assignment research design to compare outcomes for the two programs in each site. After being determined eligible for a site’s programs and consenting to the study, cash assistance applicants and/or recipients were randomly assigned to one of the two programs at that site. The evaluation pre-selected employment in the second quarter (at six months) after random assignment as the confirmatory outcome for the study. The impact study also estimated effects on earnings, public benefits receipt, and job characteristics.

The evaluation randomly assigned 2,081 cash assistance applicants in Michigan, 2,700 applicants in New York City, and 493 recipients in Sacramento County. The evaluation uses several types of data, including data from the National Directory of New Hires, administrative data on cash assistance and SNAP benefit receipt, and a survey administered to study participants approximately six months after random assignment.

Citation

Martinson, Karin, Eleanor Harvill, and Deena Schwartz. (2020). The Effectiveness of Different Approaches for Moving Cash Assistance Recipients to Work: Findings from the Job Search Assistance Strategies Evaluation, OPRE Report #2020-113. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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