With the passage of the 1988 Family Support Act (FSA), adult basic and literacy education was linked to welfare reform. Based on experimentation with welfare reform during the previous decade, the FSA created the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training Program (JOBS). JOBS, which requires states to make educational services available to welfare recipients, was created in response to the general consensus that welfare recipients are not well prepared to enter the work force (Cohen et al. 1994). One of its major underlying assumptions is “that a strong foundation of literacy and basic skills is critical to the successful transition to employment and self-sufficiency for AFDC parents-especially young parents” (National Institute for Literacy 1994, p. 2).
The educational and skill levels of welfare recipients as a group are lower than that of the general adult population. For example, compared to 27 percent of the general adult population, nearly 50 percent of welfare recipients do not have a high school diploma (NIFL 1994). Also, 30 percent of welfare recipients have basic skills below those of the minimum skill level of all women in the lowest occupational skill areas (Cohen et al. 1994). Thus, to the architects of the FSA, a logical avenue for assisting welfare recipients in achieving economic self-sufficiency was to provide those who needed it adult basic and literacy education services through JOBS. The need for this assistance has subsequently been supported: an estimated two-thirds of JOBS enrollees require basic skills enhancement before they are able to enter the work force (ibid.). The other third are placed in employment more immediately, either in the private sector or community service work (Chisman and Woodworth 1992).
In the nearly 5 years since the passage of the FSA, a body of research related to the convergence of welfare reform and adult basic and literacy education has begun to emerge. Some of this research is based on experiments with welfare-to-work programs leading up to the FSA (e.g., California’s Greater Avenues for Independence [GAIN] program), but much of it deals directly with the experiences of providing adult basic and literacy education to JOBS participants. This Practice Application Briefreviews some of these research findings and describes their implications for practice.
What Does the Research Say?
Evaluation studies of employment and training programs, including the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), and JOBS, are one body of research that can inform practice. This research has been conducted over the past 20 years primarily on demonstration programs designed to improve the basic skills and employability of disadvantaged adults. A synthesis (Cohen et al. 1994) of this research resulted in the following conclusions that have a bearing on the role of adult basic and literacy education in welfare-to-work programs:
Because they use traditional pedagogical approaches for which many adults have little tolerance, adult basic and literacy education programs have experienced difficulty attracting and retaining participants. Furthermore, many low-skilled adults see no connection between this traditional approach and their primary goal of getting a job.
Achieving substantial and long-lasting gains in measured basic skills through traditional adult education programs is difficult. “The research on these initiatives presents a disappointing message in terms of the effectiveness of literacy, job training, and education programs in remedying and/or compensating for the basic skills deficiencies of many young adults” (ibid., p. 34).
Currently, little evidence exists connecting participation in one of these programs with noticeable headway toward economic self-sufficiency among welfare participants.
When programs are tailored to the needs of participants, results are more encouraging. For example, participants in programs that linked basic skills instruction to occupational training or to other work experience are more highly motivated to complete the program; furthermore, they “do achieve sizable gains in employment and earnings in future years” (ibid.).
Cohen et al. (1994) concluded their analysis of the employment and training program evaluation research by suggesting that, although “the studies demonstrate that basic education and literacy services remain a very important component of welfare reform, . . . they clearly need to be fundamentally redesigned” (p. 34) because “traditional literacy training and employment approaches have not been found to be effective with welfare recipients” (p. 39).
Findings from studies devoted solely to the JOBS program support this conclusion. For example, based on a national study of the basic skills component of the JOBS program, Chisman and Woodward (1992) concluded that, “to achieve its mission, JOBS basic education must have a far different set of goals than standard adult education courses have” (p. 54). In their study of JOBS programs in five states, Pauly, Long, and Martinson (1992) found that, although educational institutions are often willing to serve JOBS clients, they are sometimes reluctant to alter their existing programs, primarily because they do not wish to disrupt established practices. Pauly, Long, and Martinson also discovered that “little attention is being given to determining the quality of education provided under JOBS” (p. 9), which they attributed to lack of coordination and collaboration between human service staff and education officials. Currently, participation rates are the primary benchmark for JOBS programs.
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