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Undercurrents: Researchers Delve into Head Start, TANF Programs

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Each year 894 children in the Virgin Islands attend free public Head Start programs to prepare for kindergarten; about 120 even younger children are enrolled in Early Head Start. At the same time, well over 1,000 people receive monetary subsidies under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF, sometimes described as a welfare-to-work program.

It’s a lot of people. And it’s a lot of money.

But are these programs working? Are the people in them enjoying a better quality of life than they would without participating in the programs? Is the Virgin Islands a better place because of them? And is the federal government – which pays for these safety nets – getting sufficient social return on its investment?

Obvious questions. Not obvious answers.

Soon the Caribbean Exploratory Research Center at the University of the Virgin Islands may be able to shed some light on the relative success of both projects.

Under a three-year, $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, CERC began its study of TANF and Head Start, including Early Head Start, in late 2014. The program grant concludes in September of this year.

The announcement of the grant two and a half years ago made it clear that a comprehensive assessment was overdue: There had been little research on the Head Start project in the Virgin Islands, and none on TANF.

“It’s an exciting time. We have lots going on,” CERC research director Noreen Michael reported last week.

The work is “community based,” she said, so in collecting information researchers have tapped a wide spectrum of resources, including parents, teachers and staff of Head Start, as well as TANF recipients, their potential employers and staff who administer TANF.

Michael also meets regularly with “partners” in the project – not only government officials and staff from the Department of Human Services, which administers both TANF and Head Start, and from the Labor Department ,which coordinates with TANF clients, but also representatives from many local nonprofit organizations that serve some of the same clientele.

“We spent a large amount of time doing what we call an environmental scan,” Michael said. The scan is a sort of detailed overview of the programs, including everything from the numbers of people served to things like the type of job skills local employers are looking for in employees.

Michael said summaries of the environmental scan have been shared with DHS officials and some staff. The report will be officially released at CERC’s next “partnership meeting” March 15.

Although she was reluctant to share its findings until then, Michael did reveal a couple of possible problem areas discussed in the report. The first involves TANF.

Nationally, TANF replaced Welfare in the 1990s. Its emphasis is on getting families off the dole and getting heads of households into the workforce. The family receives various types of financial assistance such as rent and/or utility and food subsidies as well as a small income for a limited amount of time, while the head of household receives help in preparing for and seeking employment.

There is some flexibility in structuring individual programs but each jurisdiction is bound by the federal maximum of five years (60 months) of benefits.

“There are some success stories,” in the territory, Michael said. But most cases do not have happy endings.

The problem is many TANF recipients don’t have the skills that are needed in the local labor market and many are lacking a high school diploma. The Department of Human Services can provide some training and access to on-the-job learning in some cases, and it may be able to subsidize child care while “mom” is at school, but it does not have the funds to pay for vocational school or for a GED program. To be eligible for TANF in the first place, a person must have no income. So how can a recipient pay for school?

“It’s a Catch 22” situation, Michael observed.

Similarly, children must have a health screening before they are accepted into Head Start. But many are unable to get the required exams from health care providers within the deadline.

Michael said CERC is working on several research projects, expanding on information from the environmental scan.

One is a study of health care referrals; another is an assessment of how Head Start manages its waiting list; a third focuses on ways to increase parental engagement with the program; and the fourth centers on nutrition and physical activity as ways of improving a child’s future quality of life.

There is also one TANF research project in the works.

“We’re using targeted coaching” for a few clients, Michael said. The aim is to give clients more achievable goals and to help them acquire tools they need to achieve them.

She concedes the project is not strictly observational, but is also action-oriented.

“We’re calling it a pilot,” she said. “We hope to get more funding” for it.

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