The passage of federal legislation reforming welfare in 1996 challenged states to be innovative in structuring and administering public assistance for needy families with children. As one of the first states to end Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and replace it with a new program, Wisconsin provided a new vision for many key decisions that states now face about imposing time limits on assistance (within the federal five-year lifetime limit), setting levels of cash assistance, the variety of employment-related services to offer, and how to enforce requirements for participating in services.
In the Wisconsin Works (W-2) program, applicants for public assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) must be assessed and assigned quickly to one of several “tiers” that entail different levels of cash assistance, different services, and different participation requirements. Two tiers (community service jobs and W-2 transitional placements) have two-year limits unless an extension is granted. Thus, caseworkers' decisions about initial tier assignments have important implications for participants and the agencies that administer services. Although state policy sets guidelines for making initial tier assignments, caseworkers have much discretion in designing an individualized service plan for applicants and participants. Moreover, in Milwaukee County, the state has contracted with private agencies to administer W-2, and the agencies have developed their own procedures for conducting intake and assessing applicants.
This report - the first in a series on W-2 administration - describes how the early assessment of applicants' job readiness and service needs was actually done in Milwaukee County during the program's first two years. Based on field research, administrative records, and observations of program operations, it analyzes the initial tier and activity assignments. The study's findings illustrate how W-2 has evolved, how caseworkers have handled the many tasks of enrolling someone in the program, and the challenges of assessing the circumstances and needs of applicants who have serious barriers to employment. (Author abstract)