The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the way many human services agencies operated. However, the stress, trauma, and grief caused by the pandemic prompted agencies to rethink how they engage with and support their clients. It also forced agencies to experiment with new approaches to address persistent stress and trauma experienced by their own staff.
On this episode of On the Evidence, Mathematica’s J.B. Wogan and Diana McCallum discuss trends that have emerged in human services agencies during the pandemic. The episode draws heavily from a March 2022 webinar on how local agencies that administer the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program significantly changed their workforce and service delivery approaches in response to public health restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The episode includes several clips from the following experts who participated in the webinar:
- Kataney Couamin, the director of workforce operations at Philadelphia Works Inc.
- Andrea Barnum, a manager of human services programs at Arapahoe/Douglas Works!
- Michelle Derr, founder and CEO of The Adjacent Possible
- Jon McCay, a senior program analyst at Mathematica
Listen to the full episode below.
Disruption provides an opportunity for innovation because it undermines the ways that we're accustomed to doing business, the way that we have established routines around service delivery and TANF programming is no different, right? For the past 25 years or so, TANF programs have operated in very similar ways. The pandemic threw all of that, up in the air and created a reason for managers and supervisors to really rethink business as usual, more so than anything else that we've seen.
I’m J.B. Wogan from Mathematica and welcome back to On the Evidence, a show that examines what we know about today’s most urgent challenges and how we can make progress in addressing them.
On this episode, we’re going to talk about how human services as a field adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue serving individuals and families, and how some of those adaptations may have a lasting impact even after the pandemic.
The idea for this episode originated with a recent webinar on innovative state and local strategies used by TANF programs during the pandemic to adapt service delivery and promote staff and client well-being. TANF, by the way, stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and TANF programs are meant to help families with children experiencing poverty through cash assistance, child care, job training, and other activities. The webinar was hosted by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, as well as Mathematica, and The Adjacent Possible. I’ll include some clips from the speakers in the webinar because it was an interesting glimpse into the necessity-driven innovations that happened within one major human services program.
After listening, I wondered if the same kind of adaptations happened in other public assistance programs that support individuals and families. To explore some of the same themes in a broader context, I invited my Mathematica colleague, Diana McCallum, to be on the show. Diana is a senior director of research in the division of children, youth, and families at Mathematica. She moderated the original webinar on TANF programs and is involved in other research at Mathematica that has examined that pivot in human services to remote services during the pandemic. Part of Diana’s portfolio, which is relevant for this conversation, is that she leads Mathematica’s work for something called the Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse, which is a publicly available website that allows users like TANF administrators and workforce development providers to sift through existing research to find potential interventions that could help job seekers with low incomes. Mathematica operates the Clearinghouse for the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at the Administration of Children and Families. In addition to maintaining the website, Diana and the Pathways Clearinghouse team produce research briefs that summarize the evidence on timely topics related to the clearinghouse. In our conversation, Diana mentions the Pathways Clearinghouse in general and two specific research briefs that Mathematica produced as part of ongoing support for the Clearinghouse.
As part of the interview, Diana and I reference insights from experts who appeared in the March webinar that inspired this podcast. You’ll get to hear a few clips from those experts. One of them is Jon McCay, a senior program analyst at Mathematica who co-authored a brief about pandemic-era innovations in TANF programs. That brief was the result of work Mathematica conducted on behalf of the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, otherwise known as OPRE. In the interview, you’ll hear Diana refer to the work by the project’s acronym, SPARK, which stands for Supporting Partnerships to Advance Research and Knowledge.
You’ll also hear from Michelle Derr, founder and CEO of The Adjacent Possible, who also worked on project SPARK and co-authored a different brief on supporting the mental wellness of TANF staff and program participants.
You’ll also hear from Andrea Barnum and Kataney Couamin. Andrea is a human services program manager at Arapahoe/Douglas Works!, which is a workforce center serving, as the name suggests, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties in Colorado. Kataney is the director of workforce operations at Philadelphia Works, which is a workforce center in Philadelphia. By the way, we reference a number of research briefs on this episode. Any research we mention in this episode will be available in the show notes and on the Mathematica blog that accompanies this episode. We also provide a full transcript of the episode on the blog.
Okay, with that, I’ll turn to my interview Diana McCallum. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
The pandemic disrupted life, as we know in so many ways, but I do want to zero in on the human services field. What did disruption look like in human services and what problems did that present for, number one, the people served by human services agencies, and number two, the people who work in those agencies?
Yeah. So disruption in human services programs and, and in particular TANF and workforce programming, it really meant a pretty dramatic change in, in terms of service delivery. You know, state and local guidelines really meant that in-person services were either restricted or they were completely suspended. And then of course, as we know, like there was a large surge in unemployment claims, so on the TANF and workforce side, that meant that a lot of eligibility or case management staff really just had to be reassigned from TANF to help manage that issue. So there was a significant change in workload. And of course, you know, for clients, disruptions meant that services were stalled when clients really needed access to them the most. So you can imagine, you know, clients participating in work experience or being involved in the middle of community service placements. And my colleague, Jon McCay at Mathematica, he talks about those disruptions and he really led the effort to think through which disruptions actually might be some opportunities. So we should hear from him on that.
Yes, Jon had a lot to say here and let me pull in a clip from the webinar that I referenced in my intro for this podcast.
Most TANF programs tend to operate education, training, and workforce development courses through providers in the community. And a lot of those have to occur through in-person formats. The pandemic, of course, created a situation where none of that was really possible anymore. And so programs were faced with the choice of, well, do we have people sit at home and not make progress on their work, education, or training priorities? Or, are there things that we could take advantage of to help families move forward?
So at the same time that all of this is happening and clients are experiencing so much turmoil, it's really TANF and workforce program staff that of course were going through the same thing. Staff were dealing with their own widespread disruptions in school and child care and dealing with family illness and, and even death, like everyone else. And, you know, no one could have really imagined the kinds of contingency plans that would have supported the challenges that human services agencies were facing. And I think you can start to hear a little bit about how staff were dealing with this and really how they were called to really serve for the public. When you hear Kataney Couamin, who is the director of workforce operations at Philadelphia Works, but she talks about the need to, you know, provide public goods and services in the midst of trying to figure out how to operate in a pandemic when you and everyone around you is dealing with like a, a lot of grief and fear and just an increase in, in family responsibilities all around while trying to manage a work day and a job where you really have to provide a public service at a point where folks need it the most. So just TANF and workforce leaders, they really just faced so many challenges, and I appreciate that she highlighted how her staff were, were dealing with this.
I completely agree, Diana, and let me put in a few clips here from Ketaney’s remarks in the webinar.
The capacity for us to learn anything new or innovative, and that that goes from leadership staff to management staff to the frontline staff, was really eclipsed because we were all pretty much in survival mode.
You know, Diana, Kataney says there that they were all in survival mode, and yet, they did find a way to be innovative. They did adapt. Let’s hear a little more from Kataney about what drove her and her colleagues to be flexible and find new ways to meet clients’ needs during the pandemic.
The biggest thing that was important to sort of bring sobriety to the process is, or to just to the experience, is accepting the reality that I work in a field where, again, we're stewards of public good. There is a need to provide a service to folks, and we want that service to be of quality. We also want that service to be accessible. We need that service to meet the needs of the folks. So a lot of it is accepting that reality and allow our ability to respond to be informed by that reality, where we had that flexibility.
So, if we know that customers are most engaged with their cell phones, then let's meet them there. If customers are most engaged, because they can have the freedom to, you know, watch YouTube video and get their credit hours and not get sanctioned, let's meet them there. If a customer prefers to come in-person, and we create an environment that's safe to do so, let's meet them there. And, so all the areas where we have the flexibility, despite what our funders, would allow, or within those limits, is really accepting the reality of the work that we have to do, but understanding that where there are opportunities to meet the customer where they're at but also embrace that sense of flexibility that we have to give, that staff would also benefit as well.
Diana, I want to go back to Kataney’s point that staff were in survival mode. I would include TANF caseworkers among those essential workers who were helping other people in crisis, and yet the pandemic was affecting their lives, too.
Yeah. And I think, you know, there haven't been a, I think, a ton of studies done to like examine the mental health and wellbeing of, you know, human services agency staff. But as part of Project SPARK, both Mathematica and the Adjacent Possible, which is led by the CEO Michelle Derr, we did a brief survey of TANF program staff to think about their well-being and the findings there really tell the story of all the stress, the trauma and grief that program staff were facing. So, you know, just as a brief highlight, you know, the survey was a small snapshot with a small subset of TANF programs. We found that 62 percent of people said they felt confident in their ability to handle personal problems, but so many didn't. Less than half of the participants said that they felt like those things were, you know, not going their way. So I think, you know, we can turn to this clip from Michelle to really talk about that. That was in a sample of about 128 program staff from four states that we had been working with on SPARK.
Okay. Here's the clip from Michelle.
Just to give you a little bit more of an idea of how stressed and where people were at that time, this was about February of 2021: 62 percent of people said that they felt confident in their ability to handle personal problems, but a lot didn't. Fewer than half (43 percent) said that they felt like these things were going their way. About half said they sometimes felt like they were unable to control important things in their lives. Some of their top concerns: no surprise, friends and family, their safety, you know, managing work and family responsibilities, especially with kids who had kind of child care and home schooling. And then, also, just effectively serving customers remotely, connecting with the families in a meaningful way.
Diana, let me, let me pause for one second here. We're talking about, we’re talking about human services broadly, and then we're talking specifically about TANF agencies, because that was the focus of the webinar, but when we say human services, what programs, or how do you think about human services? What does that all encompass?
So, yeah, so when I think of human services agencies, those include those agencies that are administering TANF, or that's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They also include the agencies that are administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as people regularly call it. But, you know, it includes those agencies that are working to meet the immediate needs of children, youth, and families, those administering WIC, or, you know, of course within those, there's an array of child welfare agencies and protections for human rights agencies. So it is a wide range. And in this work, yes, like we focused most closely on those agencies that are responsible for administering TANF and coordinating with workforce agencies and administering different employment services.
Okay. All right. Excellent. Yeah, I think I just wanted to clarify for listeners that there's an alphabet soup of, of programs and they all do slightly different things, although they sometimes share similar overlapping customers or clients or beneficiaries. And I think a lot of them maybe could be categorized as anti-poverty agencies, even if their primary purpose isn't that, but a lot of what we'll be talking about today is specifically about TANF or about employment assistance in particular.
That's correct. Yeah. And I think that's a great way to put it.
So with that in mind, as, as we've just, as we were just saying, there's, uh, there's a whole kind of patchwork of programs and agencies in human services and Mathematica works with federal, state, and local human services agencies around the country, work that continued during the pandemic. And I was curious, what were some of the common themes that we saw in terms of how agencies adapted to the pandemic?
Yeah, this is an important question. Because I feel like there were many threads that emerged across many of the projects that we've been working on, but I think the biggest common thread was that agencies really adapted to do all they could do to keep services flowing to participants. That is something that we saw, whether it was TANF agencies, workforce agencies, or, you know, nonprofits offering employment services, which all kind of work in this space. But there was certainly lots of innovation among those groups, a lot of creativity and a real chance to think about how services are delivered. So, you know, across a couple of briefs that we have, including the pandemic-era innovations brief for the future of TANF programs that my colleague Jon McCay led, as well as a Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse brief, led by my colleague, Ryan Ruggiero, we saw agencies kind of do the same core things.
One of them was flexibly using technology to make sure that clients had options to continue programs and receive session content. So that meant, you know, a range of things like offering sessions through Zoom and other platforms, certainly that was very common. But also things like pre-recording short content and sharing that asynchronously, or thinking of other synchronous options to get groups together. We saw a lot of agencies actually providing the technology. So providing and loaning laptops, WiFi hotspots to really allow for access. And we talk that throughout the webinar, that access was really such a critical piece. And then some programs really thought about how they could modify requirements to allow more flexibility for clients. So in some cases, it was extending eligibility redeterminations and allowing participants to complete their eligibility requirements online rather than having everything be face-to-face and in-person. And Jon has a nice comment about this when he talks about the way that programs started to think about the need for things like wet signatures.
Many TANF programs, and including some of the other public assistance programs like SNAP, required in-person, wet signatures, required in-person interviews to complete application. Again, the pandemic created a situation where that was no longer possible, and so programs across the country flipped their approaches where DocuSign became an important tool to get everything done from the application all the way through the individual responsibility contract, creating a situation where a mom with one or two or three kids who would have to navigate two bus trips, right to and from the office across the city, now could sign her form right there online and not have to make that trip into the office to access the benefits that were important for her family.
There were also many innovations that allowed for opportunities for deeper engagement. Another common theme that we saw was, you know, in many cases, agencies started to engage in more frequent check-ins to see how people were doing sort of, in terms of their general wellness and their ability to access all of these services, you know, with the new formats that they were provided in. But, you know, that was sort of an interesting innovation that came up and it was, you know, definitely common across many entities.
With regards to remote services, could you talk about the need that remote services met? To what extent, and this is, I think Jon touched on this a little bit, when he's saying in that clip, how in the past you might have had to take, was it two to three buses, bus trips, to get to an appointment, but to what extent was there already a need before the pandemic? And if there was a need before the pandemic, what about the pandemic allowed for change?
Yeah, I mean, I think remote services and just opening up that flexibility that met a really wide range of needs, you know, starting to open up options so that clients could continue programs or, you know, really allowing agencies to push their own boundaries and think about how they can have like tailored approaches that best fit the needs of clients and their families. The biggest need that I think remote services met, it's about that access piece. You know, I think the biggest issue that came up and this was across the webinar and some of the other briefs that we've done, but it's that focus on the digital divide. So that, you know, certainly existed for the pandemic, and it's something that only grew. So it's certainly one thing to have an array of options to enable virtual participation, but it's the access issues that really needed a lot of attention.
And I love, you know, Andrea Barnham, who's the workforce programs manager at Arapahoe/Douglas, she really talked about this, and gave some compelling examples, but she's talked about how her team started to address the digital divide. And, you know, she talked about opportunities to offer laptops. And I think one example she gave was just making sure that different types of laptop options were available to clients. And that really was the need that they had to start to fill even before thinking about an array of options. So I think, yeah, it'd be great to turn to what Andrea had to say and the examples that she shared about this.
We had some digital literacy gaps with our participants pre-COVID, but obviously, COVID amplified that digital divide even more. We had participants in our TANF program that wanted to work virtually, but didn't know how. We had participants that knew how, but didn't have access to the right technology. We had participants that were home with their kiddos sharing their devices, not having enough devices for virtual learning and job search. And across the board, we saw that most of our TANF participants didn't have access to computers and Internet, and even if they did, they didn't have adequate technology know-how to use applications that were really foundational to enter the job market, to engage in virtual trainings, to truly engage in their community virtually.
You know, one other agency that we interviewed in the survey that I mentioned before talked about this innovation that they had, where they used a bus as a large mobile hotspot. And they were able to send the bus into the community to allow a range of participants to have Internet access, and that also enabled their families to have access, too. So it's just, you know, when I think about the access issues, that is something that, you know, having this flexibility around remote services help to meet that big problem that still persists.
And I would just add, for regular listeners of the podcast, some of the themes here may sound familiar. We did a podcast last year about father engagement during the pandemic and one of the programs we featured, Father to Father in South Carolina, recognized that Internet access was a problem for dads they were serving, so even when they couldn’t allow in-person services, they offered WiFi in their parking lot, so that dads could get free internet. And along the same lines, some of the fathers had children doing remote learning, and the children needed a way to print assignments and papers, so the nonprofit helped fathers and their children by letting them use the nonprofit’s printers. They even used Zoom for legal counseling and virtual court hearings and peer-to-peer group sessions with other fathers.
And I also wanted to mention, we also explored the topic of providing virtual or remote services on an episode about economic coaching and navigation services during the pandemic, and in that case, what Mathematica learned was that some organizations were using interactive web-based platforms to increase regular communication between coaches and program participants through a chat feature; and web-based platforms also allowed program participants to submit information electronically rather than going in-person to drop off paperwork. And, specifically, the example offered in the Mathematica issue brief on this, focused on Larimer County, which is, just by happenstance, another county in Colorado, which allowed recipients of public assistance to still meet a program requirement to document their reportable work activities, but do it through the web-based platform.
So, that’s remote services, and I have to say, there does seem to be a lot there that could be preserved in non-pandemic times. The TANF webinar you moderated, Diana, also explored a different kind of innovation, one that wasn’t tech enabled. And we’ve already touched on this topic obliquely through Kataney’s remarks about TANF program staff being in survival mode. These folks have been under a lot of stress, and I think this is an angle that maybe is a little underexplored and underappreciated, but to what extent was stress and burnout already a problem among the staff who work at human services agencies, and how did the pandemic change the way that this problem was perceived and addressed?
Yeah, so this is my opinion and my best guess on this, given the way that I've started to work with TANF agencies and different workforce service providers. But, you know, I think staff well-being has really always been a challenge that, like you said, it's received little attention. But especially for human services agencies, like these are really challenging jobs to take on, even outside of a pandemic, where, you know, you have direct service staff like tending to take on really high caseloads, carry a tremendous amount. And, you know, it's intense when you think of the support that they're trying to provide to communities that are in great need. And so layering on a pandemic, you know, you can see how that just really intensifies the stress that these staff may be facing. And, you know, I think I definitely don't want to minimize and also want to highlight that clients were also facing the same challenges every day.
And I think what may be a bright spot is that there was an opportunity for empathy that leaders and, and staff really got to embrace in a new way because of the pandemic. You know, when I think about how mental health may have been a topic prior to the pandemic, I can imagine that there are many entities where discussions about the racial violence that preceded the pandemic, and that continues, but like discussions about that were not really common in settings in many, many agencies and organizations. But I think now, you know, agencies are having many more honest and regular conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion; worker burnout, you know, what the history is of, you know, providing services to clients in these programs and how we think about, you know, better empathizing with staff. So I think, you know, the just stress and burnout is something that's just, I feel like it's been always a part of the work that human services agency staff take on. And I think the pandemic for many organizations, it's kind of shown a light on that work in a new way.
It's an interesting point about how, since the pandemic is something that affects all of us, that there was an opportunity for empathy among the workforce in human services. They were experiencing this stress and trauma, and then they could understand better what some of their clients were going through at the same time.
Yeah, I think that's right. And, you know, when I talk to TANF program staff and the leaders and the direct service workers, you know, I think they are dealing with this every day, sort of the stress that their clients are facing. And, they certainly, you know, it's like to do this job, they have to have a tremendous amount of empathy. I think they always do. But really beginning to think about this organizationally is probably the piece that's been different, and probably a help for, for them. And, you know, again, other organizations like human services agencies to start to have these conversations about, you know, just about issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and, and thinking about how the mental health of staff are really affected by events that are going on and allowing the space to talk about that has been a shift.
Hmm. So I noticed in your, the answer to your previous question, you were very clear about pointing out, this was an opinion and an educated guess it's based on sort of what, you know, what you've seen, but not necessarily findings from a RCT evaluation per say. I did want to ask what we do know from a data perspective. Do we know yet what impact these adaptations had on people served by human services agencies? Is there any reliable evidence on the outcomes that we would care about or that we would like to measure like employment, enrollment in higher education, food security, et cetera, and, just more broadly, what data do we have?
Yeah. This is an excellent question. And it's the one that most TANF administrators and workforce providers really had as we spoke to them on my Pathways Clearinghouse project. But we don't have evidence from, you know, rigorous studies from randomized control trials or quasi-experimental designs with a comparison group. You know, we don't yet have information about the impact of these kinds of adaptations on like the really important outcomes we care about, like you mentioned, like employment, educational attainment, food security, that sort of thing.
Let me talk about what we do know. I think we know that these adaptations probably influence the short-term things that are important, right? So they allowed organizations to continue delivering their services to their clients. These organizations were able to stop the suspension in services. They weren’t stalled indefinitely, and they found ways to connect to clients with trainings and services.
So we know, you know, a bit from agencies that we've talked to about that piece, but there just, there isn't a ton of evidence yet about these adaptations. On our Pathways to Work Clearinghouse project, we actually issued a call for studies, hoping to find high quality evaluations that looked at things like remote work opportunities or delivering services using a hybrid approach, or to see if there were any greater efficiencies obtained in human services programs when technology is embedded. And, you know, unfortunately, we didn't find a ton yet. It's an area that wasn't studied, you know, not a surprise because of, you know, these flexibilities didn't exist really in these programs. You know, when you look at the decades of employment research. The hope is that more of this work will be coming. It's certainly possible. And I think, you know, there are many evaluations that may be underway that are starting to examine that a little bit better.
You know, if I were able to, if I were able to think about like, what might a learning agenda look like when starting to investigate these adaptations, there's certainly a lot that I would want to explore. I think, you know, when I look at TANF and workforce agencies, they are just, they're incredibly resilient. And they've, you know, at this point, they're offering services remotely and in-person. So there may be opportunities to explore those different modalities and see which ones are associated with impacts on some of the short-term things that those adaptations may actually be able to influence, like, you know, helping people find a job quickly or helping to connect them to, you know, interest in their career more quickly. So I'm thinking about those kinds of things, or, you know, how quickly it helps people attain the certifications in the career that they're most focused on.
So I think, you know, there certainly is a lot of promise in thinking about those adaptations and perhaps, the short-term or interim things that they may influence that, you know, can really help us understand, how do human services organizations operate most efficiently? So I think there's a lot to come there. I will say, as someone who, you know, is always focused on those programs that are going move the needle on employment, earnings, reducing public benefit receipt, or increasing education and training that, you know, when we think about these adaptations, we really have to be cautious in thinking about the kind of impacts we might expect, right, from looking at them. So I would be careful in thinking about some of those longer term impacts, but, you know, we might want to think about, this is an opportunity to step back with programs and really think about their operating logic model for these adaptations and what they intend to influence.
But, you know, I can imagine looking at things like job quality and satisfaction with a job and seeing if any of these nuanced approaches for reaching clients are able to influence outcomes like that. I think that needs a ton of attention, especially when you're looking at populations that are looking to advance economically. So I would really love to see more of an emphasis on those kinds of outcomes. So my colleague Michelle Derr, she really puts it best when she thinks about, you know, the opportunities that may emerge, and what we can learn when thinking about employment programs and the way human services agencies have operated since the pandemic. So we should turn to her.
Program leaders across the country have risen to the occasion and, and this creates an opportunity to pause as we enter this, whatever new normal is, to pause and to reflect and to figure out, what have we learned and how can we apply these lessons moving forward, so that we can operate programs in a way that addresses the stress and promotes wellness in a proactive way, so that the experiences of these past two years are put to good use and done in a way that can really create better programs moving forward.
I will say one other quick thing, J.B., I won't spend a lot of time on it, but when thinking about what we know, you know, not necessarily from a pandemic, but from other similar economic periods, that is another place where we actually do have some evidence. So, the Pathways Clearinghouse team just recently released a meta analysis, which is a summary of the employment and training interventions and a close examination of their impacts on different labor market-related outcomes. But we looked at those, we looked at different periods of economic recessions and recoveries, to see if there were any, you know, specific types of, of service approaches that were most strongly associated with increases in earnings during those times. So that is information that we do have, you know, not necessarily about the remote services piece, but we know a bit about similar economic periods and what works to improve employment or really specifically to increase earnings for participants.
Okay. And I, you know, I noticed in a brief that was from a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation about economic coaching and navigation services, a project I referenced earlier and had been on the podcast, one of the briefs from that project looked at virtual services, and, specifically for coaching and navigation, but they mention, you know, there isn't a perfect analogous body of evidence around employment coaching in a virtual setting, but that there were studies both comparing virtual and in-person psychological counseling and comparing in-person and virtual weight-loss coaching. And that the studies from those other fields offered some evidence that virtual coaching could be as effective as in-person coaching. Again, not that, the evidence wasn't on virtual versus in-person employment coaching, but, I think that's interesting, too, that there may be some evidence that at least while we're waiting on information to come in from the pandemic, that gave us some reason to think that virtual services would have—at least wouldn't harm and maybe would even help continue to provide services to clients.
Yeah, that's helpful. I mean, you know, that's definitely good, promising evidence, and I feel like any information we have on expanding the modalities and the ways that people can receive services, like that is the kind of thing that would provide agencies with, you know, enough backing to think about. Yes. Like we certainly can continue thinking about hybrid services or tailoring services to the situation that meets their clients best. So I just, that that's really encouraging.
So talk about the long-term implications of those adaptations. Are there, are these changes that go away when we're no longer living in a public health emergency? I could think of lots of things in our lives during the pandemic that we’ll be grateful to wave goodbye as soon as possible. You know, social distancing or double masking, I don't know, I'm sure there are other COVID protocols that we hope are only temporary, but will some outlive the pandemic, some of the adaptations that we're talking about in terms of the human services field, will some of them outlive the pandemic and if so, why do you think they will?
Yeah, I definitely think some of the adaptations will outlive the pandemic and, you know, in really important ways for programming that TANF leaders and their staff provide and human services agencies more broadly, but, you know, I really think they have led the way in creating an expanded set of options that they can use when serving clients. So that's great. I mean, I think about Iowa's Human Resources Administration, for example. During the pandemic—they had always operated an in-person home visiting program—and during the pandemic, they began piloting a virtual set of home visiting services. And they're in the process now of kind of rapidly testing those and, you know, thinking about circumstances where clients may prefer in-person services or where home visiting services done virtually can work out well when thinking about broader family well-being, you know, that's kind of like a bright spot that's emerged, you know, just thinking about that nuance in the way that services are provided.
I think those are the kinds of long-term things that agencies are walking away with. Like, there's a lot of variety and how they can meet the needs of clients and, you know, they’re able to now with the increased flexibility, really think about how to best do that. So I, you know, I really like that, in the webinar, Jon McCay, he kind of talked about the opportunity that we've been provided. You know, if there can be a bright spot in all of this, but that, you know, there was a lot of innovation, that that came about, and he has a nice discussion of that, and in particular for TANF programs, how that emerged.
Okay. And let's listen to that clip from Jon now.
And so disruption provides an opportunity for innovation because it undermines the ways that we're accustomed to doing business, the way that we have established routines around service delivery and TANF programming is no different, right? For the past 25 years or so, TANF programs have operated in very similar ways. The pandemic threw all of that up in the air and created a reason for managers and supervisors to really rethink business as usual, more so than anything else that we've seen.
Diana, do you have any parting thoughts or a final takeaway, something you'd like to leave the listeners with?
Yeah, I mean, I think my parting thoughts are just that, you know, with all of the stress that human services agencies and their clients that really been dealing with over the past more than two years now, and all of us, I think this, you know, just getting to work with them in this context has really shown the innovative spirit that those staff carry. I think, you know, at an organization like ours, sort of shifting to go remote is, is one thing. And we were set up in ways to be able to do that, but I'm just so struck by all of the stories of staff really, you know, I felt like they got together and brainstormed and think about all right, you know, we want to offer services to people virtually, but first we have to work on access and what funds can we put together to make sure that we're getting laptops to those that need it so that they can succeed and move on to the programs that they need to, you know, there were just so many stories of staff really thinking creatively and flexibly about how to help people get what they needed quickly.
And that, you know, I think that's, it's just been so encouraging. And I think that's where so much of the innovation in this space really comes from, from really working with human services agency staff, and thinking about how they want to change services. And I love that they have been able to, to really do that and expand on that. And I think it just is changing the way that we think about employment programs. And I'm just really hopeful for us to begin to evaluate that more and see how that model is influencing the client perspective and, and ultimately what they're able to achieve.
Thanks again to Diana McCallum for joining me for this episode of On the Evidence, the Mathematica podcast. I also want to say thanks to Andrea Barnum, Kataney Couamin, Jon McCay, Michelle Derr, and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, who gave us permission to use clips from the March webinar about TANF agencies for this episode. As always, thank you for listening to the show. To catch future episodes, please subscribe wherever you find podcasts, or you can also follow us on Twitter. I’m at JBWogan. Mathematica is at MathematicaNow.
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Read the issue brief about supporting mental wellness for TANF program staff and participants.
Read the issue brief about pandemic-era innovations for the future of TANF programs.
Read the issue brief about lessons from delivering remote services to job seekers with low incomes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read the issue brief about providing coaching and navigation services virtually to promote economic mobility during the pandemic.
Read a program snapshot about a nonprofit in South Carolina that used virtual services to continue supporting fathers during the pandemic.