Learning Our Way through Welfare Reform

By Woolis, Diana D.; Nakashian, Mary et al. | Policy & Practice of Public Human Services, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Learning Our Way through Welfare Reform


Woolis, Diana D., Nakashian, Mary, Fox, Lynda, James, Susan, Gephart, Martha A., Marsick, Victoria J., Policy & Practice of Public Human Services


Like many skeptics, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) anticipated welfare reform would have a disproportionately negative effect on substance-affected mothers receiving public assistance. On the other hand, CASA also believed welfare reform would enable states to experiment with innovation and tackle some of the most entrenched social problems.

As the profound nature of reform became increasingly apparent in 1997, CASA sought and received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to design CASAWORKS for Families. With a mission to help women on welfare with substance abuse problems achieve and maintain recovery, employment, family safety; and quality parenting, CASA began a three-year study testing its program, CASAWORKS for Families. The program customizes services to this hard-to-serve population, integrates substance abuse treatment and job training, provides simultaneous rather than sequential services, has a single point of service planning, and uses a community-based collaborative service delivery structure.

CASAWORKS for Families has taught us profound lessons in the last four years. We have learned that practical knowledge about effective programming is critical. Yet, our analysis of CASAWORKS for Families early data, our experience, and our observations tell another story as well. It is the story of an enormous public policy shift occurring within another seismic historic event--the advent of a technologically driven information economy. This double whammy of events has pushed us to look not only at the practical information but also at the larger pattern of events and their implications for the future. It is through probing this larger change that we discovered a set of four "orienting points" that we believe provide an unexpectedly powerful approach to achieving desired outcomes. These orienting points may ultimately provide states with the navigational device they will need to flexibly respond to continuous changes in the economy, recipients, and policymakers.

Orientation Points

There is a long list of specific policies up for debate under reauthorization, including funding levels, time limits, family formation, fathers, safety net for children, performance measures, work standards (better jobs and better wages), poverty reduction, work programs, education and training, the role of Workforce Investment Boards, and the interplay between the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and other programs such as child welfare, child care, Medicaid, and food stamps. There are liberal and conservative positions on some of these policies and a fair amount of good research on many of them. There is, however, no "birds-eye view," no organizing device, or navigational system creating and informing a much-needed larger "map" or set of organizing principles. An approach that distills, blends, and synthesizes research, practice, and experience and illuminates important patterns across policy areas and disciplines can be most helpful. Based on our experience with CASAWORKS for Families , we suggest a set of four orientation points that emerged as one such pattern set and label them: Customizing, Integrating, Measuring, and Learning.

Customize Services

In the Winter 1998 issue of this journal, we suggested the qualities, characteristics, and circumstances that facilitate women's transition from welfare to work are absent or dramatically diminishcd among the substance-abusing population. As states struggle to meet the requirements of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), they will increasingly be faced with the need to move this hard-to-serve population into work. As time goes on, more and more of the clients in states' caseloads will have multiple, complex, and long-term problems that prevent them from getting and keeping jobs.

Our assertions about the circumstances and conditions of this population of women have proved to be correct. …

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