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The Progressive Economics Forum

Should Welfare Recipients Try Harder to Find Work?

This morning the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation released a new report about “motivational interviewing” for welfare recipients.  The link to the full report is here, and the link to the executive summary is here.

Authored by Reuben Ford, Jenn Dixon, Shek-wai Hui, Isaac Kwakye and Danielle Patry, the study reports on a recent randomized controlled trial done on long-term recipients of social assistance in British Columbia.  The research took place between September 2012 and March 2013.  There were a total of 154 research participants; 76 of the individuals were in the “treatment group,” while 78 were in the “control group.”

Earlier this year, I was invited to be a discussant on the study at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Economics Association.  Here are 10 things I think you should know about this report:

1. The “intervention” being studied was the Motivational Interviewing (MI) technique.  MI is “a method of interacting with clients who are ambivalent about making change in their lives.” It has “wide application in behavioural change: addictions, health, behaviour wellness, chronic disease management, and most recently in the employment field.”  For more on MI, see this web link.

2. Research participants were on welfare upon enrollment in the study.  By “welfare,” I mean last-resort social assistance.  For most eligible residents in British Columbia, this is known as “income assistance (IA).”  Upon being recruited for the study, most research participants were receiving approximately $1,000 per month to live on; this amount included “health supplements,” as well as “general supplements” for such things as transportation.  Research participants had also been identified by British Colombia’s Ministry of Social Development as being “employment obligated,” which means they were expected to be actively searching for paid employment.  (For more on benefit levels available under social assistance programs administered by provincial and territorial governments, see this 2013 report.  Readers should be mindful that, across Canada, there are separate social assistance systems for First Nations; a 2007 evaluation of the federally-administered “income assistance” program for First Nations can be found here.)

3. Research participants had been on welfare for at least one year at the study’s outset.  The rationale behind this recruitment strategy was to identify social assistance recipients who were most likely to be facing motivational challenges.

4. Most of the research participants reported health problems.  According to the report, more than 70% of study participants “reported activity limitations that affected their ability to work.” For example, just one-quarter of members of the treatment group reported that “their health was ‘good’ or ‘very good…'”  With this in mind, it’s not entirely clear to me why British Columbia’s Ministry of Social Development considers these individuals to be “employment obligated.”

5. The “intervention” was provided by welfare officials (specifically, by Employment and Assistance Workers and case managers).  Remarkably, each staff person received fewer than 70 hours of training before delivering the intervention (specifically, 60 hours of training in how to deliver MI and then nine hours of coaching as the intervention was being delivered).  The training of staff was provided by Empowering Change Inc., a Canadian-based organization that (perhaps not surprisingly) specializes in training people on how to deliver MI.  Members of the study’s control group “received the range of services and treatment which they would typically receive” as long-term recipients of social assistance.

6. The results of this study suggest that Motivational Interviewing can be effective.  By the end of the three-month study period, the difference in the respective employment rates of the treatment group and the control group was statistically significant.  The precise size of the difference in the employment rate between the two groups was 7.8%. (For the research wonks:  the level of statistical significance attained on this was 5%.  Put differently, the likelihood that this finding occurred by chance is less than 5%.)  This finding raises a question for me though:  what would outcomes have been for members of the treatment group after 12 and 24 months respectively?  Three months is not a long time.

7. Fewer than half of the members of the study’s treatment group actually took in even one (hour-long) Motivational Interviewing session.  Just 36 of the members of the study’s 76 treatment group members chose to go through with a Motivational Interview.  And only about one in five members of the treatment group took in more than one such session.  Ergo: the success of the treatment group as a whole appears to have been carried by a minority of its membership.  This suggests to me that the success of the treatment group is actually being understated; had every single member of the treatment group actually received the intervention (and not merely been offered it) I suspect the treatment group as a whole would have performed even more favourably compared with the control group.

8. The research was funded by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).  On the one hand, I suspect that most readers will not be surprised to learn that the federal government wants most people on welfare to ‘look harder’ for work.  On the other hand, it may come as a surprise to some readers (especially those who remember the Harper government’s decision to end the mandatory long-form census) that the federal government has funded research looking at what is effective in this regard.

9. The study took place at a time when, throughout Canada, there were considerably more unemployed persons than job vacancies.  Across Canada there are roughly six unemployed persons for every job vacancy (a ratio that varies considerably across provinces).  This raises an important question:  in a country where the number of unemployed persons vastly outnumbers job vacancies, why does the federal government want to study the feasibility of long-term recipients of social assistance (many of whom have serious health problems) trying harder to find low-wage work?  Some readers will remember a Toronto study conducted in 2001 that followed more than 800 individuals who had left welfare within the previous year.  Fewer than half of those individuals “felt things had improved financially” for them since leaving social assistance; on the whole, after leaving social assistance, individuals “reported incomes at approximately 92% of Statistics Canada’s 2001 Low Income Cut-Offs.” (Further analysis of this Toronto study can be found here.)

10. This study took place at the same time that the federal government is aggressively bringing in more temporary migrant workers.  As Jim Stanford has recently noted: “Migrant employment [in Canada] rose 140 per cent between 2005 and 2012.” Further, “[o]ne in every five net new paid jobs created in Canada between 2007 and 2012 was filled by a migrant worker.” This raises yet another question for me:  why is the federal government interested in exploring how to encourage more welfare recipients to look harder for low-wage jobs while (simultaneously) ‘importing’ competition for many of those same jobs at an aggressive pace?  Don’t the two objectives work at cross purposes?

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Comments

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: September 11, 2014, 3:23 pm

3 months? A sample size of less than a 100 in each- barely significant results, was it a simple random sample within the control group?

Okay aside from the statistical aspects- do these people truly believe that some kind of enhanced interviewing process is the solution to such labour market outcomes? Putting it nicely- I would conclude the study was plain idiotic. Sorry authors- but you have been bulldozed by the politics- and of course your will always find an academic willing to subvert to such pretentious research- mainly because of the political opportunism. It is actually embarrassing seeing such research being conducted. This is right up there Nick with the “lets give a homeless person a home and see if it helps them mentally” research that you posted last year! Amazing research being done in this country.

Comment from Larry Kazdan
Time: September 11, 2014, 4:44 pm

“Case study: the parable of 100 dogs and 92 bones

http://alittleecon.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/the-parable-of-100-dogs-and-92-bones-why-the-work-programme-cant-work/

From Bill Mitchell’s blog:

Imagine a small community comprising 100 dogs. Each morning they set off into the field to dig for bones. If there enough bones for all buried in the field then all the dogs would succeed in their search no matter how fast or dexterous they were.

Now imagine that one day the 100 dogs set off for the field as usual but this time they find there are only 92 bones buried.

Some dogs who were always very sharp dig up two bones as usual and others dig up the usual one bone. But, as a matter of accounting, at least 8 dogs will return home bone-less.

Now imagine that the government decides that this is unsustainable and decides that it is the skills and motivation of the bone-less dogs that is the problem. They are not skilled enough. They are idlers, bludgers and “bone-shy”.

So a range of dog psychologists and dog-trainers are called into to work on the attitudes and skills of the bone-less dogs. The dogs undergo assessment and are assigned case managers. They are told that unless they train they will miss out on their nightly bowl of food that the government provides to them while bone-less. They feel despondent.

Anyway, after running and digging skills are imparted to the bone-less dogs things start to change. Each day as the 100 dogs go in search of 92 bones, we start to observe different dogs coming back bone-less. The bone-less queue seems to become shuffled by the training programs.

However, on any particular day, there are still 100 dogs running into the field and only 92 bones are buried there!”

Bill concludes with:

“In the UK there are about 92 bones for every 100 dogs and in Spain 72 bones for every 100 dogs!

The point is that fallacies of composition* are rife in mainstream macroeconomics reasoning and have led to very poor policy decisions in the past.

There are simply not enough jobs.”

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