Limitations of Conventional Back-to-Work Programs
In this era of shrinking budgets for publicly-funded social services, we are seeing greater attention to best practices and cost-effectiveness in back-to-work programs for those receiving public assistance and those who are “hard-to-employ,” including the homeless. Recent research at the national level supports the need for more effective, lower cost, community-based programs like that of Saffron Strand.
Employment of the homeless: A study published as part of the 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research revealed shortcomings in the performance of conventional training and employment programs for the homeless. In the study — “Employment and Income Supports for Homeless People” (11.1-34) — researchers David Long, John Rio, and Jeremy Rosen summarized the effectiveness of “mainstream” programs such as Social Security Administration (SSA) disability programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Workforce Investment Act (WIA) initiatives in enhancing employment and incomes for people who have experienced homelessness.
The researchers also described the design and outcomes of “targeted” programs designed specifically to address employment and income support for people who are homeless. Some rigorous evaluations had been done on mainstream programs, but there was little comparable work done to evaluate interventions to get the homeless subpopulation back to work. The researchers concluded: “(R)esearch evidence about the effectiveness of programs in reaching the homeless population with income support and in encouraging employment and self-sufficiency while support is provided is plainly weak.”
Programs for those receiving public assistance: More recently, the Department of Labor helped fund a study, “Alternative Employment Strategies for Hard-to-Employ TANF Recipients” authored by Erin Jacobs and Dan Bloom (MDRC, December 2011), which analyzed the effectiveness of contrasting programs in Philadelphia over a 4-year period. The research involved hard-to-employ recipients of public assistance, but did not focus specifically on the homeless. The study examined the performance of two programs in detail:
• Transitional jobs model operated by the Transitional Work Corporation (TWC), which placed recipients who were referred by the welfare agency into temporary, subsidized jobs. These “hard-to-employ’ persons, including homeless adults, received work-related supports and help finding “permanent jobs.”
• A training and transitional job model call “Success Through Employment Preparation” (STEP) which aimed to assess and address participants’ barriers to employment — such as health problems or inadequate skills — before they entered transitional employment.
The MDRC research team assigned nearly 2,000 “long-term and potential long-term” welfare (TANF) recipients randomly either to TWC or STEP or to a control group that did not participate in either program and charted all the participants’ progress over time.
TWC versus STEP: The TWC participants achieved higher employment rates than the control group early in the evaluation period, but the difference faded. After the first year, the groups had similar outcomes. The TWC group also received significantly less welfare assistance initially, but this difference too faded before the third year of the study.
The STEP participants did not work or earn more, or receive less welfare, than the control group. However, the researchers cautioned that these results may have been affected by the fact that many people who were assigned to STEP did not participate in the program for long periods.
“The results suggest some fairly clear patterns,” the researchers reported. “The TWC program substantially increased employment in the short term, but this and other studies suggest that, in order to sustain impacts, short-term transitional jobs programs need to help more people obtain and retain permanent jobs. The STEP program did not increase employment, adding to a growing body of evidence suggesting that it can be difficult to engage welfare recipients in extensive pre-employment services long enough to significantly improve their employability.”
Saffron Strand’s approach: In contrast with the TWC and STEP conventional back-to-work programs, Saffron Strand engages homeless adults who commit themselves to getting back to work. They become “members” of our “intentional community.” They do not receive payment for their voluntary work at the Saffron Strand Center where the tasks they perform are essential to the operation of the organization. This work involves on-the-job training in a wide range of real-world employment activities.
Saffron Strand staff address the members’ individual barriers to employment and help them optimize their unique talents for work. In this way, the homeless begin to invest in themselves as unique individuals, building their individual array of technical skills and soft skills which improves their employability. In our intentional community, they work side-by-side with other members, everybody concentrating on gaining skills and experience so everyone can get back to work.