Until the recent shift to a more work-oriented assistance system, eligibility for cash assistance focused primarily on determining whether a family met the financial and household composition requirements to be eligible for assistance. Thus, the eligibility determination process generally focused on making sure that all of the documentation required to verify income, assets, the presence and ages of children in the household and deprivation was provided. The processing of applications in a timely manner without errors defined success. Given this emphasis, in most offices, eligibility workers spent little, if any time, talking with applicants about the circumstances that led them to apply for assistance and whether there were other resources that they could access to alleviate their current situations.
The shift to a more work-oriented, transitional assistance has started to alter this eligibility determination process. Workers are taking more responsibility for informing applicants about program expectations and work-related benefits such as child care, transportation or child support assistance. Seven of the 51 states examined for this report (Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Montana, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin) are making a concerted effort to explore alternative resources with applicants before proceeding with an application for TANF. These efforts are designed to accomplish a number of different objectives: 1) to help families become more self-reliant by thinking more broadly about their needs and potential options for meeting those needs; 2) to provide families only with the assistance they need (e.g., child care assistance) rather than assuming all families need cash assistance; and 3) to provide cash assistance only as a last resort so that families subject to a lifetime time limit will have access to resources at times when they are most in need.
In contrast to other forms of formal diversion, there are generally no specific policies that guide the process of linking TANF applicants with alternative resources. Instead, this approach is implemented through changes in the interaction between workers and applicants. Workers now ask questions in a different way and assume a different universe of potential solutions. Cash assistance is viewed as one of many resources available to help a family rather than the only resource. Since efforts to link applicants with alternative resources are relatively new and not driven by a detailed set of policies we do not have sufficient information to describe and compare state approaches along a number of common dimensions. Thus, to examine how these programs work, we describe how several states have integrated efforts to link applicants with alternative resources into their eligibility determination process.