Assessing the Effectiveness of Welfare Reform Initiatives:

The Relevance of Motivational Theories

Shamima Ahmed
Northern Kentucky University


Welfare reform is a current theme in politics, in policy and in public debate. Different states along with the federal government are working toward developing and implementing new welfare policies. While there is a consensus among different groups for the need to change welfare policies and programs, marked differences exist when it comes to the issue of how to change the existing system and the underlying logic of the changes. Arguments usually center in terms of the conservative versus the liberal positions regarding human nature and the concomitant responsibilities of government. One neglected aspect of understanding human nature that can provide more insights on the current welfare debate is the influence of motivation in human behavior. Although a few human activities occur without motivation, nearly all conscious behavior is motivated, or caused. This is especially true for behavior targeted in a public policy.

The paper discusses the relevance of the expectancy theory of motivation in the backdrop of the current welfare reforms. Next it describes the expectancy theory followed by a description of a Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program which soon will be put into operation in a mid-western county. The paper ends with an assessment of the FSS program based on the key concepts of expectancy theory. Based on this assessment, it identifies the strengths and weaknesses in the design of the FSS program, and its efficacy to meet the policy expectations of welfare reform.

Section I: The Relevance of Theories of Motivation in the Welfare Debate

The historical debate on welfare policy in terms of the scope of welfare programs (universal versus selective) and the role government to a great extent rest on the behavioral assumptions that policy makers and analysts hold about the welfare recipients.

The most prevalent assumption underlying the current welfare reforms is the consideration of welfare recipients as rational calculating individuals. It is on this assumption that much of the efficacy of the incentives that constitute the reform proposals are based. As Kohlert (1989, p. 303) explains, "The selective philosophy was embodied in the landmark poor laws. These laws targeted the ‘inadequate’ who temporarily needed service, or as Lieby (1978) contended, the dependent, defective, and delinquent." The universal philosophy on the other hand, views welfare recipients as no different from any other group. The underlying assumption is that their difficulties arise out of structural factors (viz. lack of opportunity, experiences of repetitive failures) and not personal factors such as being lazy or morally depraved (Glass, 1982).

The latter view resembles the position of the liberals or those on the left who argues that "the underlying cause for society’s most persistent problems­welfare dependency, crime, drug abuse, and homelessness­is economic. Unfair economic conditions created these problems, and more fair and equitable economic condition are the only way to solve them. Behavior never really enters into the equation" ( Thompson, 1997, p. 186). Despite the stereotypes, there are no consistent evidence that people receiving welfare lack goal direction, i.e., unwilling to get off welfare. Surveys of welfare recipients consistently show that they express a desire to work. The choice of welfare over work is often a rational decision based on the economic incentives presented (Tanner, Moore, and Hartman, 1997, p. 76). As Tanner points out, "The combined tax-free value of welfare benefits is roughly equal to the income that can be earned at many entry-level or low paying jobs. In addition, an individual leaving welfare may suddenly forfeit medical and childcare benefits. Thus, for many, welfare may seem a perfectly reasonable alternative to work" (p. 39).

Arguments similar to Tanner’s are based on an emerging view of the welfare recipients. In contrast to the stereotypes of lazy, defective or delinquent recipients, this emerging view perceives them as rational calculating beings. Proponents of job training, workfare, work incentives and similar other efforts share such a view of the recipients.

A view of welfare recipients as rational calculating individuals clearly is relevant to the scope and goals of theories of motivation. Motivation, simply put, represents the forces acting on or within a person that cause the person to behave in a specific, goal-directed manner. At the basic level, theories of motivation attempt to explain the processes that underlie individual’s goal-directed behavior. Therefore, the application of these processes is relevant in assessing the design of programs that address the current welfare debate. The pertinent question is this: which theory of motivation is relevant to assess the prospects of success of recent welfare initiatives? This paper takes the position in favor of the expectancy theory of motivation for such assessment.

The expectancy theory of motivation

The expectancy theory of motivation is developed by Victor H. Vroom and later on expanded and refined by Porter & Lawler and others (Vroom, 1964; Porter & Lawler III, 1968). This theory is based on a view of individuals as rational beings who make conscious calculations regarding the amount of effort to exert towards a particular goal. Such calculations involve a sequence of interplay among three factors:

(1) one’s estimate of the probability that effort will result in successful performance (known as expectancy);

(2) one’s estimate that performance will result in receiving the reward (known as instrumentality); and

(3) the desirability of a particular reward to the individual concerned (known as valence). According to Vroom, motivation is a product of these three factors.

Expectancy is the belief that a specific level of effort will lead to a particular level of performance. It can vary from a belief that effort and performance are completely unrelated, to the certainty that some level of effort will result in a corresponding level of performance. If individuals doing the calculation believe that for the particular situation at hand, there is no relationship between effort and performance, they will not feel motivated to exert much effort. If they believe that there is a positive relationship between the two, they will make the next calculation (which is known as instrumentality).

Instrumentality is the perception of the relationship between improved performance and reward. Here the belief can range from the certainty that improved performance will not bring reward, to the certainty that some level of improved performance will bring a corresponding level of reward. According to the expectancy theory, if individuals believe that there is a positive relationship between improved performance and reward, they will feel motivated and do one more calculation (which is termed as valence). On the other hand, if they believe that improved performance will not lead to reward they will be de-motivated to work.

Valence refers to an individual’s preference for a particular type of reward. In the case of those individuals thinking about valence, they are basically asking the question as to whether they value the reward they will gain with an improved level of performance. According to this theory, if they value the reward or if the desirability for the reward is high for these individuals, then they will be motivated to put their efforts. In brief, expectancy theory holds that individuals’ beliefs regarding effort-performance-reward relationships and the desirability of various rewards associated with different performance levels determine work motivation (Hellreigel et. al, p. 189). This basically indicates that effort alone is not enough. Unless an individual believes that effort will lead to some desired performance level (i.e. expectancy), which in turn will bring some reward (i.e. instrumentality), a reward which is desirable to the individual (i.e. valence) the individual would not be motivated to work. According to this theory, most individuals, before deciding on how much effort to exert, consciously go through the three different calculations: expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

In this model individuals do not simply act because of strong internal desires, or unmet needs (as Maslow would say), or the application of rewards and punishment. Instead people must be viewed as thinking individuals whose beliefs, perceptions, and probability estimate powerfully influence their behavior (Newstrom & Davis, 1993, p. 153).

The basic logic of the expectancy theory is drawn in the following diagram:


Motivation = Expectancy X Instrumentality X Valence

To increase Probability that Probability that Value place

one’s effort extra effort will desired performance on the

achieve desired will lead to rewards reward (s)


The following section uses the theoretical framework of the expectancy theory of motivation to assess the possible effectiveness of a Family Self-Sufficiency Program currently being designed at a county level in a mid-western metropolitan city.

Section II: The Family Self-Sufficiency Program (FSS)

The Family Self-Sufficiency Program (currently in the developing stage) is a collaborative effort between the county’s Metropolitan Housing Authority (MHA), the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the United Way. Each of the partners will have a specific role in the process. This partnership mission is to move families from Section 8 and Public Housing to home ownership or independent housing through employment. Basically, participants will be asked to sign a contract which will give them access to employment opportunities, job training, continuing education, counseling and savings without discontinuing the support services. Monthly deposits made to an escrow account are calculated based on the differences between the rent requirements prior to employment and after employment.

The program requires the family to make an investment in its future by giving it an incentive to complete the program, since the escrowed funds are only available when the contract has been fulfilled. Furthermore, these funds can only be used for housing or education. In short, the FSS program provides an opportunity to families to become employed and build savings without jeopardizing their support services.

Each of the partners has some responsibilities/tasks under the FSS program. The families (i.e. participants) will establish employment which can be either full-time (40 hours per week) or a mixture of employment and education where education cannot exceed 20 hours per week. The participants also have to meet monthly with workers from DHS to report their progress by providing evidence of employment showing no missed days and no time missed due to lateness. The MHA of the county will review the participants’ information monthly to determine continued eligibility and compliance with the contract. The DHS will contract with the families and determine a plan of action for each. If a contract includes education, a review committee of the partners will determine whether it conforms to the program’s mission. It will coordinate employment opportunities, provide information and encourage participation in employment-related seminars, workshops and counseling to ensure employment success. The MHA, and the United Way will provide funding for the program. Each family, signing the contract, will start with an escrow account of $750, which will be deposited by the partnership. In addition, once the contract is completed, $1,000 will be added to the participant’s escrow account.

This program, as designed, will be one of the FSS programs to be overseen by the HUD. HUD’s Family Self Sufficiency Program was established by the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 which was later amended in 1992 by the Housing and Community Development Act . The program’s purpose is to promote the development of local strategies to coordinate federal housing assistance with public and private resources in order to enable lower-income families to achieve economic independence and self-sufficiency. Day to day operation of such programs is carried out by public housing agencies.

In addition to receiving housing assistance, FSS families may, under the act, receive supportive services, such as job training, education, and childcare to help them become self-sufficient. The act does not authorize additional funds for these supportive services. Instead local agencies must rely on the resources and programs in their communities to serve participating families adequately (U.S. GAO report, April, 1993).

Section III: Expectancy Theory and the Assessment of the FSS Program Design

In accordance with the expectancy theory, the success of this program would depend on the outcome of the three different calculations that welfare recipients would be making.

Expectancy, as mentioned before, is the calculation of the relationship between effort and performance. For the participants in the contract, effort would mean a variety of activities including search for jobs, learning the skills required for getting a job, and taking college courses. Performance here would mean getting a full time job or getting a part time job or going to school part-time.

The question here is, how much does the FSS program offer to create a strong belief among the participants regarding a positive relationship between effort and performance, or, in this case, between their efforts to get a full or part time job and the certainty of actually getting a job? Three issues pertinent to answering the question are identified and analyzed below:

1. Does the FSS program prepare the participants to get a job? The answer is yes, to a certain point. According to the design of the FSS program, the county’s DHS will coordinate employment opportunities, provide information and encourage participation in employment-related seminars, workshops and counseling to ensure employment success. However, the program does not have a training/skill development component. It assumes that participants have the requisite skills to get a job, and that jobs are available in the market for their skill level.

2. What kinds of jobs are available to these participants? This particular mid-western metropolitan city is considered a growing city with a zero to very low unemployment rate. However, for those welfare recipients who are directly going to the job market, without any skill-development training, we are talking about minimum wage jobs, which not only carry low wages but are highly unstable.

3. Do most welfare recipients, especially women, have the ability to work a significant number of hours in the labor market? A growing literature indicates that a disproportionate number of welfare recipients have the experience of or are experiencing domestic and sexual abuse. There is evidence of substantial learning disabilities among welfare population . Finally, children of welfare recipients may have health and other problems, which hinder their mothers from working. The FSS program does not address problems like transportation and child-care which may become the major constraints for the welfare recipients’ search for jobs and their efforts to hold on to jobs.

Instrumentality: Following on with the expectancy theory, those who believe that they will be able to find a job and to hold on to their jobs will do the next calculation which stands for instrumentality. Here participants will be thinking about the plausible relationship between working in a job and having enough savings to buy a house and to maintain that house. In the FSS program, a contract will be drawn between participants and the partners; once the contract is fulfilled the participants will be given their escrowed balance including the added $1,750 ($750 + $1,000) to the account. Also, monthly deposits to the escrow account will equal the difference between the rent requirements prior to employment and after employment. This is basically geared toward providing an incentive to participants to work and earn without jeopardizing or reducing their welfare benefits. However, participants with a minimum wage job will also calculate the amount of savings they would be able to generate with such a wage and their ability to afford and maintain a house. For the minimum wage earners, the relationship will appear to be low to moderate for most, if not for all.

Valence: According to the expectancy theory, those who perceive a positive relationship between holding a job and the possibility of owning a home, would do one last calculation which stands for valence. Valence here will mean the participants’ desirability for homeownership. Homeownership is considered as one of the major dreams of most, if not all, Americans. However, according to the expectancy theory the previous two calculations are going to affect participants’ decision to calculate the value of the reward that they will get. In this case, we are talking about the value they place on homeownership. It appears from the above discussion that most participants may not even feel motivated to do this last calculation because the previous calculation may yield only weak expectancy and instrumentality values.

Navel reports that, research conducted by experimenters in existing state and federal work incentive programs have found "low-income family members often have the desire to work, but lack the belief that they will be successful in their work" (1993, p. 269). It follows that, an integrated services approach is essential to enhance the self-esteem of FSS participants, make them aware of new career possibilities, and then provide them with the education and training necessary to achieve their raised aspirations.


The FSS program is an innovative program, which attempts to move families from Section 8 and Public Housing to home ownership or independent housing through employment. It provides two important incentives for participants: (1) to find employment and earn without the fear of jeopardizing their housing benefits, and (2) to facilitate the process of home-ownership for the participants by creating an escrow account and making monthly deposits equaling the differences between the rent requirements prior to employment and after employment. Additional contributions are made to the participants’ escrow accounts by the partnership. Even though the program does have several incentive features, the program does not have an effective component of skill building and other important supportive services (e.g. childcare, transportation).

This component may work against developing a belief among the participants regarding a positive relationship between effort and performance. If most participants believe that they will be able to land on minimum wage jobs with their current skills, they will also most probably doubt their ability to have enough savings to buy a house and later on to be able to maintain that house. If this becomes the belief pattern, then, based on the expectancy theory, most participants won’t even think about how much they value having a house of their own. All of these factors point to the importance of skill-development training for the welfare recipients.

The emphasis on training is reiterated by scholars and practitioners alike. For example, Tompkins (1996), referring to the OhioFirst program argues that under "OhioFirst, a time limit has been established on the receipt of AFDC cash assistance. Assistance group with a member participating in the JOBS program will be limited to a maximum of 36 months out of any 60-month period. Our philosophy is that to be successful in moving individuals off public assistance, we must provide appropriate training and support services first. However, we also believe that client must take responsibility. This approach strengthens the JOBS program by sending the message to clients that we want to help them become self-sufficient. But they have a responsibility to get out of the program before the time limit expires" (p. 15). The success of FSS program, most probably will hinge on whether eventually a program component on training will be developed or not.



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