The Work First New Jersey Evaluation: Welfare Reform
In 1997, New Jersey implemented its welfare initiative, Work First New Jersey (WFNJ), which included five-year time limits on cash assistance, immediate work requirements for most clients, and expanded support services. Over the ensuing years, many WFNJ clients made substantial economic progress and continue to move toward self-sufficiency. However, their economic progress was not always steady, and some were more successful than others. Many cycled in and out of the labor market. In addition, some left welfare without a substantial alternative source of financial support. Mathematica conducted a six-year study of WFNJ that included several components.
The Client Study tracked a statewide sample of WFNJ families over a five-year period to establish what happened to them before and after they left welfare. Focusing on clients who participated in WFNJ during its first 18 months of operation, this study documented the welfare receipt, employment levels, income, health, housing arrangements, and other indicators of WFNJ clients’ general well-being and quality of life. It identified factors affecting individuals’ success in moving from welfare to work and changes in these measures over time. The study used three main types of data: (1) a series of five longitudinal surveys with a statewide sample of as many as 2,000 WFNJ clients, conducted at 12-month intervals; (2) information from state administrative data systems on a larger sample of 10,000 WFNJ clients, documenting such outcomes as their welfare receipt, employment levels, and earnings; and (3) three rounds of in-depth, in-person interviews with a subset of WFNJ clients, designed to gather more detailed, qualitative information about their lives. In addition, the study included a survey of a more recent cohort of WFNJ clients, to examine how the characteristics and outcomes of clients changed over time.
The Program Study explored operational challenges and promising strategies for overcoming them, to help state and county staff identify and address key implementation issues. It also helped the state develop performance indicators to guide program improvement efforts. The analysis drew on state administrative data and three rounds of site visits to a subset of the state’s 21 counties. During these visits, site visitors interviewed county staff members, conducted case file reviews, and observed key program activities. Topics for the three rounds of data collection included: (1) progress in WFNJ implementation, (2) working TANF leavers’ access to post-TANF benefits, and (3) efforts to address TANF clients’ employment barriers.
The Community Study included case studies in three areas—Newark, Camden City, and Cumberland County—to understand local opportunities and challenges facing welfare reform. The case studies focused on the employment patterns and service needs of low-income parents, the jobs available in local labor markets, and the local institutional response to welfare reform. The analysis drew on a survey of low-income residents, an employer survey, and interviews with local service providers and other stakeholders.
The Child-Only Study examined a statewide sample of New Jersey families receiving child-only TANF grants. Child-only TANF families were diverse and included those headed by nonparent caretakers (typically, grandparents), as well as those headed by parents who were ineligible for TANF because they were on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or because of their immigration status. The study included a survey of more than 500 adult caretakers of children on these cases, supplemented by detailed qualitative interviews with a subsample of these cases and by an analysis of state administrative records data. The study focused on the characteristics and origins of these cases, as well as on the stability and economic security of these households.
The UI Study analyzed how the UI program functions as a safety net for TANF recipients who exited welfare and found jobs. The study relied on administrative welfare records, UI earnings and claims data, and survey data for a subsample of WFNJ clients tracked by the Client Study who had left welfare and found jobs. The study calculated the proportion of these WFNJ clients who achieved monetary eligibility for UI benefits during the first few years after leaving welfare for work and how this proportion changed when eligibility rules were varied. The study also examined factors affecting nonmonetary eligibility, such as reasons for job separations. Finally, the study examined the actual use of UI benefits among these clients.
The early group of clients made substantial economic progress in the five to six years after entering the program. Many left welfare for work. Their average incomes increased substantially, while their poverty levels fell. Although they experienced gains as a group, their economic progress was not always steady. Many cycled in and out of employment, and in and out of poverty. Physical and behavioral health factors and other barriers made employment and daily life difficult for many. Job retention as well as improved access to support services were important in furthering their goals.
"Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Uneven Economic Progress of TANF Recipients" Social Service Review (March 2008)