A capstone project by three La Follette School students was featured in a WisContext story as part of its series on food security and assistance in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ (DHS) Division of Medicaid Services sought the students’ assistance with evaluating the FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET) program, including whether it improves employment and earnings outcomes and increases self-sufficiency.
FoodShare is Wisconsin’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal program providing food assistance administered at the state level. Since 2015, Wisconsin has required certain FoodShare recipients to meet federal work requirements to maintain their FoodShare benefits beyond three months. The FSET program is one option for satisfying the work requirement.
Nehemiah Chinavare, Kevin Dospoy, and Chad Laurie (all Master of Public Affairs graduates in 2018) conducted the research, and Associate Professor J. Michael Collins served as their adviser. Chinavare is an assistant performance evaluator for Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, Dospoy is a FoodShare policy analyst for DHS, and Laurie is an analyst for Grant Thornton in Washington, DC. Michele Dickinson (MPA ’14), the FoodShare Policy Section Chief, led the project on behalf of DHS.
For their Workshop in Public Affairs capstone course, the students provided an overview of FSET, a review of FSET training activities, and an explanation of data sources, outcomes, and measures. They found that “DHS data collection is labor-intensive and overly complex due to federal regulations, outdated data storage, and reliance on third-party vendors to acquire earnings and employment data.”
These and other challenges make it difficult to evaluate the FSET program’s effectiveness, the students’ report noted. “DHS does not currently possess the data or evaluation framework needed to make causal claims regarding the FSET program’s impacts on participant employment and earnings at a program level or at an individual component level,” it said.
The WisContext story by Associate Editor Will Cushman noted that “these challenges include the training programs' decentralized structure and differences in programming offered by the various vendors throughout the state, as well as significant challenges that are inherent to rigorous social science techniques, like identifying an appropriate control group to compare results against.”
According to DHS data, more than 30,000 FoodShare participants secured employment between April 2015 and September 2018. The WisContext story noted that approximately 84,000 FoodShare recipients lost benefits over the same time, according to Feeding Wisconsin Executive Director David Lee.
“But it is unclear how many of those 84,000 former FoodShare members have found jobs, either through FSET, other training or on their own,” the story said. “It's similarly difficult to gauge how well FSET is preparing FoodShare members for the workforce and eventual self-sufficiency, even as the state is preparing to expand its work requirement from 20 to 30 hours per week and expand to cover able-bodied parents of school-aged children.”
Despite the data challenges, the students offered short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations to conduct a quality evaluation of FSET – separate monitoring and evaluation data, implement uniform data entry processes, and redesign the database.