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Implementing welfare-to-work programs in rural welfare-to-work strategies demonstration evaluation (Burwick, Jethwani, & Meckstroth, 2004)

  • Findings

    See findings section of this profile.

    Evidence Rating

    Not Rated

Review Guidelines

Absence of conflict of interest.


Burwick, A., Jethwani, V., & Meckstroth, A. (2004). Implementing welfare-to-work programs in rural welfare-to-work strategies demonstration evaluation. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (pp. 1–53)


  • The study’s objective was to examine the implementation of three different rural welfare-to-work programs which aim to address barriers to employment in rural areas through different approaches.
  • The study authors conducted an implementation evaluation using data primarily from each program’s management information system and observations from in-depth site visits.
  • The study found that overall, the implementation of the three programs conformed to their models and were able to address a range of needs as well as identify and refer clients to outside resources and potential employment. The programs served at least as many clients as expected.  
  • This study offered a standalone qualitative analysis of the implementation of three rural welfare to work programs.
  • The companion impact study was reviewed by CLEAR in December of 2016.

Intervention Examined


Features of the Intervention

  • Type of organization: Community college, University System Cooperative Extension, and State Department of Human Services
  • Location/setting: Multi-Site
  • Population served and scale: Current and Former TANF Recipients and Other Welfare Benefit Recipients
  • Industry focus: Not Included
  • Intervention activities: Intensive Case Management, Preemployment Education, and No Interest Car Loans
  • Organizational Partnerships: State Departments of Human Services, Community Colleges, State Universities, and Resource Conservation and Developmental Councils
  • Cost: Not Included
  • Fidelity: Not Included

The rural Welfare-to-Work programing was funded by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. The three implementation sites had diverse approaches for addressing barriers to employment in rural areas. The programs studied were developed from pilot projects that were refined following the end of the pilot period. The programs were implemented in separate states with varying degrees of reach, and all were all in the pilot/scale up stage when evaluated.

Illinois Future Steps offered intensive case management. Future Steps was based off Advancing Opportunities which had its funding cut, leading administrators to modify the program to work with the remaining sources of support. Illinois Future Steps targeted TANF recipients with the work requirement as well as other low-income volunteers such as food stamp and or Medicaid recipients. Illinois Future Steps was implemented by the Illinois Department of Human Services in partnership with Shawnee Community College.

Building Nebraska Families offered preemployment education. Building Nebraska Families was based on UNCE's Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program where administrators noticed a gap in services for hard to employ TANF recipients and that a similar program may meet those needs. Building Nebraska Families looked to target TANF recipients who were considered "hard to employ" and were unsuccessful in other TANF activities. Building Nebraska Families was implemented through a partnership between the state health and human services system and the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension.

Tennessee First Wheels offered no interest car loans to support transportation to a job. The programs studied were developed from pilot projects that were refined following the end of the pilot period. First Wheels was an expansion of a program that operated by a single county in TN with stricter eligibility requirements. Tennessee First Wheels targeted employed current and former TANF recipients as well as employed food stamp and/or childcare subsidy recipients. Tennessee First Wheels was implemented by the TN Department of Human Services and the TN Resource Conservation and Development Council.

Features of the Study

The study looked at the implementation of three rural welfare to work programs in Illinois, Tennessee, and Nebraska that had varying degrees of reach within each state. The three programs were chosen as they used diverse approaches to address common employment barriers and did so on a scale large enough to support a rigorous implementation study. In Illinois, the service area consisted of five rural counties in the southern region of the state. In Nebraska, the program serviced 52 rural counties throughout the state. In Tennessee, the program was open to any resident of the state. The authors relied primarily on data from each program’s management information systems as well as observations from in-depth site visits. During the site visits, researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with program directors, line staff, human service agency administrators and case workers, and representatives of collaborating organizations. They also observed program activities and reviewed case histories of a sample of participants. Finally, they conducted focus groups with participants and members of the evaluations control group to gather information on participants experiences, awareness, and perceptions. The authors created customized management information systems for the Future Steps and Building Nebraska Families to help accommodate record keeping.


Intervention activities/services

  • The study found that the program may be most valuable when there is focus on both assistance on non-employment related issues and improvement of employment prospects.
  • The study found that vouching to employers by staff members can help overcome challenges caused by poor personal reputations. Location and reputation are incredibly important in rural areas and local partner organizations often offer both.
  • The study found that rural areas need more aggressive outreach with clear incentives and strong coordination between the partner organizations.
  • The study found that all three sites offered secondary services and activities which were unable to be implemented fully or at all.
  • The study found that due to the different natures of each program, the services ranged in intensity (frequency and duration of contact with program staff) and personalization.
  • The study found that programs used both formal and informal scans looking for outside resources which gave them the knowledge to give appropriate referrals to other service providers, resources, and potential employers. Program staff made referrals to a variety of services, including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and educational services.

Implementation challenges and solutions

  • The study found that staff turnover temporarily affected services at all three implementation sites due to a growth in caseloads, diminished management support, and the temporary postponement of future program referrals.
  • The study also found that implementation sites had issues recruiting adequately qualified staff.
  • The study found that the geographically large service areas due to the rural nature of them required intensive and well-coordinated marketing and outreach efforts.
  • The study found that staff members were able to help clients overcome barriers due to their poor reputations (which have larger impacts in rural areas) by expressing confidence in the participants and signaling the programs backing to potential employers.
  • The study found that on occasion the staff also acted as mediators between clients and their employers and their social service, which was often essential to job retention.
  • The study found that due to the nature of these programs and their implementation, staff members must function as independent professionals in order for the implementation to be successful. Staff must try to schedule efficiently due to the rural geography which may mean that staff spend significant time driving to appointments.
  • The study found that case review and other monitoring tools were helpful for managers to stay aware of staff activities remotely. Since some of the staffing is remote, managers found that regular communication and team meetings as well as the encouragement of staff interaction created a sense of program cohesion and support.

Additional Sources

Meckstroth, A., Burwick, A., Moore, Q., Ponza, M., Marsh, S., McGuirk, A., Novak, T., & Zhao, Z. (2008). (rep.). Teaching Self-Sufficiency: An Impact and Benefit Cost Analysis of a Home Visitation and Life Skills Education Program (pp. i-F.11). Princeton, NJ: Mathematica.

Reviewed by CLEAR

April 2023

Topic Area