Providing Tools to Help Families Move from Welfare to Work
Of all the lessons that have emerged from welfare-to-work experiences, Project Match believes one stands out. From its research base at Chicago's Erikson Institute, Project Match is convinced that leaving welfare is not a single event. Instead, it is a long-running process, full of false starts, setbacks, and incremental gains.
Applying that insight, Project Match has created a family-supportive network that prepares household adults for work through a nationally renowned welfare-to-work program that has served more than 1,000 residents of the Cabrini-Green housing development. Since 1985, when it opened its doors, Project Match researchers have studied the movement of participants in and out of jobs - and on and off welfare.
"For many welfare recipients, keeping a job can be harder than finding one," says Toby Herr, executive director of Project Match. "To combat this problem, we developed a comprehensive set of post-employment services - including job retention, re-employment, and advancement assistance. These services are provided on a long-term basis, whenever the recipient needs them."
"This incremental approach not only builds their skills as workers," Herr adds, "but it also strengthens their roles as parents and members of the community." Project Match's approach differs from the conventional wisdom that dominated welfare-to-work practice through the early 1990s. It envisioned a predictable, linear, lockstep sequence that could be accomplished quickly - a direct progression from welfare to education or job-training classes to employment and then upward in the labor market.
By analyzing job-turnover data for participants, however, Project Match became one of the nation's first programs to recognize that the initial job was just the starting point - not the endpoint. This understanding led to a long-term, sustained effort to help people make a permanent attachment to the workforce.
Joyce Crawford-Bailey is typical of those helped by Project Match. As a 25-year-old high school dropout, a sign caught her eye: "Interested in going to school? In getting job training? Contact Project Match." It marked a turning point in the life of Crawford-Bailey, who was then collecting welfare payments and tending to her two-year-old daughter and school-age son. "I thought about it," she recalls, "and I decided that maybe I'd go in and see what it was all about."
Project Match helped convince Crawford-Bailey to obtain her high school equivalency degree, then a part-time job, and enroll in college. When Crawford-Bailey was ready to give up, Project Match counselors persuaded her otherwise. One time, they worked with her employer so that she could go to school and work at the same time. "They were an advocate for me," she now says. Eight years later, she was finishing up her college degree while working full time at a local hospital as a case manager who explained to teenage moms why they should remain in school.
While Project Match helps people on a voluntary basis, it created a second program - the Pathways System. Pathways was designed for individuals that, under the new welfare reform law, must prepare to go to work but who have not succeeded through traditional welfare-to-work programs. Project Match spent years developing Pathways, a case management and tracking tool for state and local agencies that is now being used in six sites around the country. It is intended for mandatory government welfare departments rather than community-based agencies.
Pathways begins with a contract that contains crystal-clear expectations. Welfare recipients agree to attend a monthly group meeting and fill out a monthly activity diary that is entered into a computerized tracking system. These three tools radically alter the way in which welfare workers interact with their clients. "The welfare department should operate like a high school homeroom - a family-supportive setting that ensures that everyone is engaged in appropriate activities and is making progress," Herr says.
The detailed monthly entries include activities planned for the month, such as finding a job, continuing education programs, or volunteering at their child's school. Another set of entries captures what the person actually accomplished. Because entries are made monthly, the Pathways system ensures that caseworkers keep track of every person on the caseload so no one slips between the cracks.
Pathways is built on the concept that an "incremental ladder" exists that, with the discipline provided by regular diary entries, allows participants to climb to economic independence. For those on the lowest rungs of the ladder, Pathways encourages family and community activities. Some parents mark successes by taking their children to school on time or to extracurricular activities. Others volunteer at school, become members of their tenant management board, or join a school safety patrol. These gradual activities help parents learn to organize their lives, a lesson that can be expanded later into work preparation training.
"Any activity has the possibility of being a stepping stone," Herr says.