Only about one in five D.C. welfare recipients able to work did the necessary job searching required by law to be eligible for government payments in fiscal year 2012, according to Mayor Vincent Gray's budget proposal.

Those requirements can include job training classes or participating in community service activities.

Just 22 percent of welfare recipients whose cases are managed by private vendors -- a majority of those receiving federal funding in the District who have been determined eligible to work, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute -- met federal guidelines. That's even lower than the District's 26 percent target.

The federal government sets a number of possible ways to fulfill welfare work requirements, depending on family size, the families children's ages and their day care situation.

Still, experts say that the number is one that the federal government takes seriously.

"It's the only one that has teeth," said Heather Hahn, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. Despite federal reliance on the data point, Hahn questioned its value, "It's just really hard to know what it means if there's a low rate."

In 2009, when the data was last compiled for all unemployed welfare participants in the United States, the District had a rate near the bottom. Just 10 states were lower, Hahn said.

The work participation rate does not reflect the several thousand welfare recipients who have not even been assigned to an agency that can monitor their progress, workers that successfully exit the welfare program, or people deemed unable to work.

Deborah Carroll, the District's Economic Security Administrator, said the District has worked to improve its vendor-monitored work participation rate which she said was as low as 3.8 percent in 2010.

The city divides welfare recipients into pools, including job placement -- where participants are required to meet the work participation requirements -- and work readiness -- where the city exempts the participants from some requirements after determining that they face particular barriers to employment. Those barriers can include a range of issues from poor work history to the threat of ongoing domestic violence.

That system, Carroll says, has actually put D.C. on a path to have more welfare recipients meet federal requirements. "We turned the program upside down," she said.

According to the mayor's budget proposal, the city projects that more families monitored by outside vendors will have met the work participation requirements at the end of this fiscal year, rising to 31 percent.