Recent efforts to reform the welfare system have been more comprehensive than many previous reforms, emphasizing such diverse policy changes as family caps and immunization, school attendance and more stringent work requirements. Although broad in scope, the primary emphasis of these reforms has been on increasing participation in work or work-related activities.(1) In contrast to earlier work-related reforms that emphasized participation in longer term education or training activities, many current reform efforts are focused on encouraging or requiring TANF or potential TANF recipients to find employment as quickly as possible. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) requires recipients to participate in a work activity within two years of receiving TANF benefits but states have the option to require work sooner if they choose to do so.
As noted in Chapter 1, 16 of the 48 states included in this analysis require at least some TANF applicants to begin to look for work as a condition of eligibility, an indication that states are expecting recipients to work much sooner than the two years set forth under PRWORA. An additional twelve states, while not having specific job search requirements, do require attendance at a work orientation, work registration or both as a condition of eligibility. (See Table IV-1.) California, Maine, Michigan, Montana and Texas require work orientation only; Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Utah require work registration only; and the District of Columbia and Wyoming require work orientation and work registration. In South Dakota, TANF applicants considered ready to work must go to the Department of Labor instead of the Department of Social Services to apply for TANF assistance and must complete a Personal Responsibility Plan that could, at the discretion of the DOL employment specialists, require the applicant to engage in a variety of work-related activities including job training and job search. While all of these activities have the potential to divert families from the TANF rolls, mandatory applicant job search is the only work-related activity that meets our criteria for a formal diversion program activity.
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In general, mandatory applicant job search programs are intended to accomplish two related goals: (1) to emphasize and reinforce the shift from a cash assistance to employment-focused program and (2) to help potential recipients find employment as quickly as possible. If mandatory applicant job search works as intended, it will both send a clear message that receipt of cash assistance is dependent on one's efforts to work or find work, and encourage some potential applicants to find employment sooner than they would have without such a requirement in place. Where jobs are plentiful, applicants may find employment very quickly, possibly even before their application for TANF benefits has been completed or approved. Depending on their earnings, these applicants may be completely diverted from TANF assistance or they may be eligible for TANF benefits only for a very limited period of time, possibly for as little as one month. If potential TANF recipients perceive the job search requirements as too onerous or beyond their abilities they may choose not to follow through with the requirements, potentially jeopardizing their eligibility for TANF assistance.
In contrast, mandatory work orientation and/or work registration requirements are designed primarily to emphasize the shift to an employment-focused program and not to help potential recipients find employment prior to the approval of their application for TANF. Thus, to the extent that these requirements divert families from TANF they are likely to do so informally rather than formally.
Although mandatory applicant job search programs are becoming an increasingly common component of state efforts to reform their welfare systems, there is very little known about what is expected of families who are required to look for employment as a condition of eligibility, who is subject to those requirements, how much discretion workers have in modifying job search requirements to take into account individual circumstances, and how much assistance is provided to applicants who are required to look for work. As all of these factors are likely to contribute to the extent to which mandatory applicant job search requirements divert potential TANF recipients from receiving cash assistance, in this chapter we present an initial analysis of how states have structured these programs.
Mandatory applicant job search programs differ in a number of important ways. While some states require all adults to search for work, others limit this requirement to a smaller group of families such as two-parent families. Similarly, while some states exempt large numbers of applicants from this requirement, others have no or very limited exemptions. Additionally, while workers in some states have considerable discretion to grant exceptions to the exemption criteria set by the state in some states, in other states they are required to apply the established exemption criteria much more rigidly. The specific job search requirements also vary substantially across the states, ranging from as few as two to as many as 40 employer contacts within a month. Finally, states vary in the level of job search assistance that they provide to applicants who are required to look for work with some states providing considerable assistance and monitoring, and other states leaving applicants mostly on their own to find employment.