The Core—A Cutting Edge Blog Series Getting to the Core of Modern TANF Reform (Part 5)

Joining Families on Their Journey

By Erin Oalican    November 18, 2022


Vermont’s TANF program, Reach Up, has focused on the strengths of its participants for many years. But often, that strength-based approach has been difficult to reconcile with the federal TANF regulations, which require participation with a prescribed set of activities and number of hours. I faced this juxtaposition myself as a case manager at the beginning of my career in the Reach Up program. The topic continuously came up throughout the years, and when I moved into administrative roles and then the role of director, I vowed to address this discrepancy and continue building a program that works with and for families.

With the help of Mathematica Policy Research, we started the process of creating a mission and vision for Reach Up. Through this process, we identified common values such as the inherent worth and dignity of every Vermont family, respect for lived experience, recognition of different life experiences, and a strong desire for every Vermonter to be allowed to dream, have access to opportunities, live their best life, and simply belong. Recognizing the values we share as program staff, participants, and community members have helped ground the how and why we do this work every day.

Through a collaborative process with staff, participants, and community partners, Reach Up created the mission we live by and continuously revisit—to join families on their journey to overcome obstacles, explore opportunities, improve their finances, and reach their goals. The desired result for every family in Vermont is reflected in our vision, that families are empowered, connected, and thriving.

The frameworks and strategies we use in the Reach Up program are science-informed. At first glance, a science-informed approach may sound rigid or formal; however, I would argue that the very basis for this approach lies in developing healthy, supportive relationships. It is the mission-driven joining families on their journey. As humans, the desire to connect to each other is more than a luxury; it is as important as the life-sustaining elements of water and air. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child describes “responsive relationships” as a building block for the core skills we all need to thrive. We can think of responsive relationships as the mental and emotional counterparts to physical necessities such as shelter, food, and clothing. How can we redesign our TANF programs to nurture and provide both?

For Reach Up, this journey began by reevaluating a strict adherence to the federal work requirement and grounding our work with a mission and vision. It means meeting families on their journey, respecting the place they are and where they want to go. It also means seeing that families are so much more than the sum of what’s happened to them and where they’ve been. Families are potential; they are our communities, and they are our future. If we believe in families and what they are capable of, the possibilities are endless.

You may be wondering what this looks like in practice. We started with a mission and vision and refocused our practice on helping families achieve their goals through the Goal, Plan, Do, Review/Revise process, which was introduced to us by Dr. LaDonna Pavetti of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Our own relationships with brilliant and compassionate researchers from across the country guided us along the way. Then, the most dramatic change for Reach Up in the last year occurred in collaboration with the Vermont legislature, which resulted in an overhaul of Reach Up statute. These legislative changes formally establish a model of case management that empowers families to work alongside program staff to develop and work towards goals. Reach Up recognizes that there are many activities that contribute to a family’s well-being which will naturally improve employment prospects as well. These might include setting up childcare, getting mental health treatment, securing safe housing, or attending a training program. The path is different for each family, and by honoring each family’s unique experiences and skills, staff build and model responsive relationships.

But does this approach really work? This is a difficult question to answer because everyone has a different idea of what “work” really means. Like most things in life, there is not just one answer. However, we do have some data points that suggest some positive outcomes. In surveys with participants, they overwhelmingly said that they felt more empowered and motivated now than with the previously prescriptive method. During the pandemic, the work requirement was waived, giving us the opportunity to test our goal-achievement strategy without the pressure of the work requirement. What we found was that participants were more engaged with their case managers, more likely to show up for virtual appointments, more likely to participate in educational activities, and explored more self-employment options than ever before.

Vermont’s shift in practice was a big one, but it started with simply reflecting on our shared values and asking questions. Think of a time when you were most motivated and most excited about the possibilities ahead. What did that look like? Who believed in you, and who supported you? The most powerful memories we hold are rooted in connection to others. When we start from a place where we all belong, and we nurture healthy relationships, we create communities where children and families will be empowered, connected, and thrive.

Read additional posts from the TANF Modernization Series:
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5

About the Authors

Erin Oalican

Director of Reach Up
Vermont’s TANF Program at the Department for Children and Families - Economic Services Division


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