Education and training under Wisconsin Works
Despite its ostensible focus on work, the Wisconsin Works program (W-2) devotes substantial resources to client education and training (also known as “human capital development”). At present, about 60 percent of the W-2 case- load is engaged in some sort of human capital development activity. Among the subset of clients who lack a diploma or high school equivalency, or who have a diploma but still lack basic skills, the number involved in education and training exceeds 90 percent.
Unfortunately, the state’s W-2 education and training strategy fails taxpayers, W-2 clients, and Wisconsin employers. There is abundant evidence for this in the evaluation literature on welfare programs, and in a Milwaukee- area employer survey conducted for this study.
For example, under W-2 the state strongly promotes adult education for clients who enter the program without a high school diploma or GED. Evaluation research shows, however, that adult education programs are ineffective in increasing participant employment rates and earnings.
Evaluation research also shows that only a small minority of welfare clients assigned to education and training activities can be expected to complete those activities— often as low as 10 or 15 percent, even after several years. Even so, the state continues to assign a majority of W-2 clients to education and training, knowing that the vast majority will never finish their assigned activities or earn a credential.
Furthermore, even among welfare recipients who do manage to earn an education or training credential, the marginal value of that credential is almost never sufficient to move a family out of poverty. Thus, the idea that education and training for welfare clients is a ticket to a middle-class existence is an illusion.
Finally, a survey of Milwaukee-area employers conducted for this project indicates that entry-level employers consider a good work ethic and dependability much more important than education or job-specific training. The W-2 program, however, continues to assign clients to education and training activities as if they were highly valued by employers.
In years past, when families could stay on welfare as long as they were financially eligible, enrolling clients in unproductive human capital development activities was less of a concern. But under the current welfare regime, in which clients are limited to five years’ worth of welfare use over the course of a lifetime, the state has an obligation to make every hour of participant time count. By channeling W-2 clients into often fruitless education and training activities, the state is failing in that obligation.
Based on these findings, the report makes the following recommendations:
- The W-2 program should dramatically scale back the percentage of individuals it assigns to basic skills training, GED preparation, and high school diploma completion.
- No education or training activity should be available through a W-2 agency unless local employers or employer associations have either participated in its creation or affirmed that it is indeed a valuable activity.
- To the fullest extent possible, education and training activities should be put on a pay-for-performance basis—for both providers and participants.
- The W-2 program should emphasize education and training for the most job-ready individuals, rather than the least.
- The State of Wisconsin and W-2 agencies should create “bridge training” programs to help individuals qualify for vocational training.
- Community Service Job assignments for the hardest-to-serve clients could be reorganized along the lines of a supported work model.
- The state should adopt a modified version of Governor Doyle’s Trial Jobs Plus proposal.