Families on TANF in Illinois: Employment Assets and Liabilities. Employment Liabilities


Any person may have a host of potential liabilities for employment. This is especially true for single parents receiving TANF, whose employment assets are modest and financial assets are few. In addition, the jobs available to them tend to have inflexible work schedules and offer sick or annual leave that is limited relative to their special needs or circumstances (Ross and Paulsell 1998a). These factors may make it particularly difficult for TANF recipients to overcome their employment liabilities. In this section, we examine two broad categories of liabilities for employment: personal challenges and logistical and situational challenges. Broadly speaking, personal challenges are individual characteristics, while logistical and situational challenges are family, logistical, or environmental circumstances.

Figure III.3 Employment in the past Two Years

Table III.1
Common Tasks Frequently Performed on Any Current or Former Job
Spoke with Customers In Person 82
Used Electronic Machines Other Than a Computer 70
Did Arithmetic 64
Read Instructions or Reports 61
Filled Out Forms 61
Spoke with Customers over the Phone 55
Monitored Gauges or Instruments 46
Used a Computer 42
Wrote Letters or Memos 36
Performed at Least Four of the Above Job Tasks 72
Source: 2001-02 survey of Illinois TANF cases.

Personal Challenges

Using information from the client survey, we examined six types of personal challenges, each measured over the year preceding the survey interview: (1) physical health, (2) mental health, (3) chemical dependence, (4) severe physical domestic violence, (5) possible learning disability, and (6) difficulty with English. We asked case heads a series of questions about their characteristics and/or behavior as part of itemized scales that indicate the presence or absence of the particular challenge. When possible, we used validated scales to determine, for example, the extent of mental health problems and chemical dependence. Validated scales allowed us to measure characteristics consistently across all recipients.(2) In addition, we used administrative data on the survey respondents from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to examine a seventh type of personal challenge, which is the existence of a criminal record.

  • About one in every five TANF recipients in Illinois has a general physical health problem.

About one-quarter (26 percent) of case heads assess their general health as fair or poor (Figure III.4). Based on age-specific national norms, nearly half (47 percent) fall in the lowest quartile for physical functioning.(3) We used these two measures to create a summary indicator of a physical health problem. This indicator produces a conservative estimate of those with a physical health problem by identifying case heads who rate their general health as fair or poor and whose physical functioning lies in the lowest quartile. According to this indicator, 21 percent of TANF clients have a physical health problem.(4)

Figure III.4 Physical Health.

  • One-quarter of TANF case heads have a mental health problem.

About 1 in every 10 TANF clients (12 percent) experienced psychological distress in the past 30 days (Figure III.5). Psychological distress was measured with a validated scale that scores client responses to questions about feelings of depression, hopelessness, restlessness, worthlessness, and nervousness. Scored responses closely replicate a diagnostic assessment of serious mental illness. In addition, during the past year, 23 percent of case heads had a major depressive episode that lasted for two or more consecutive weeks as measured by another validated scale. The two scales essentially measure the same thing--a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder--but they do so for intervals of different lengths.(5) We would expect the estimate of major depression to be higher than the estimate of psychological distress because the former is based on a scale that measures symptoms experienced over the past year, while the latter is based on a scale that measures symptoms experienced in the past month. The percentage of recipients with a major depressive episode is comparable to that among TANF recipients in Michigan at 25 percent (Danziger et al. 2000) but lower than the 33 percent found in Nebraska (Ponza et al. 2002).

Figure III.5 Mental Health.

We combined the two measures to classify TANF case heads as having a mental health problem if they experienced psychological distress in the past 30 days or a major depressive episode in the past year. Based on this classification scheme, one-quarter of TANF case heads have a mental health problem. They appear to experience mental health problems at a rate higher than in the general population. For example, preliminary estimates developed by the National Center for Health Statistics (2002) from the 2002 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) indicate that 3 percent of women age 18 to 44 experienced serious psychological distress in the past 30 days, whereas this was true for 12 percent of the case heads in this study. An estimate from the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) indicates that 9 percent of adult females have serious mental illness (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 2002) compared to the 25 percent we found among TANF case heads in Illinois.(6)

  • It is not unusual for TANF clients to have a history of arrests or convictions.

More than one in every three TANF clients (36 percent) was arrested during the past six years, according to data from criminal records provided by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (Figure III.6). Although most such clients were arrested only once, multiple arrests are not uncommon. Sixteen percent of clients were arrested at least twice during the past six years.

Nearly one in every five TANF clients (18 percent) has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor in Illinois (Figure III.6).(7) Most were convicted of a misdemeanor only, while the remainder were convicted of at least one felony and may have also been convicted of a misdemeanor. The overall rate of convictions reported here is the same 19 percent rate reported by Losby et al. (2002) for short-term TANF recipients in Iowa. However, those researchers found higher conviction rates for long-term recipients: 22 percent for those who eventually left assistance and 45 percent for those who were never observed to leave.

Figure III.6 Arrests and Convictions. Figure III.7 Other Personal Challenges
  • More than 1 in every 10 TANF clients recently experienced severe physical domestic violence.

During the past year, 13 percent of the female heads of single-parent TANF cases experienced severe physical violence at the hands of a domestic partner (Figure III.7). We modeled this measure on a modified version of the Conflict Tactics Scale used in the Michigan Women's Employment Study (WES). The measure of severe physical violence includes incidents of hitting, beating, choking, using or threatening use of a weapon, or forcing sexual activity. These actions have a higher probability of causing injury or more extreme intimidation than actions considered more moderate (e.g., pushing, grabbing, slapping, kicking, or biting). Danziger et al. (2000) report that the prevalence of severe physical domestic violence is much higher among TANF cases than among the population as whole, with rates of 15 percent found among Michigan TANF cases compared with about 3 percent documented among women nationally.

We did not observe differences between employed and not employed female case heads with regard to severe physical domestic violence in the past year, although a broader examination reveals a noteworthy pattern. Employed and not employed heads were equally likely to have experienced moderate or severe physical domestic violence during the past year (Figure III.8). However, the percentage of employed case heads experiencing moderate or severe violence before the past year is significantly higher than the percentage of not employed heads (26 percent versus 15 percent). Considered together, these two findings suggest that women who have escaped domestic violence have done so through employment.

Figure III.8 Domestic Violence

  • A small percentage of TANF recipients are chemically dependent.

Past survey findings on the incidence of problems associated with the use of chemicals (drugs and alcohol) among TANF recipients vary considerably depending on the measurement methodology. The evidence generally indicates that the incidence of chemical dependence is lower than the incidence of chemical abuse, the former being the more severe. For example, using a validated short scale that accurately diagnoses dependence, Danziger et al. (2000) report that 3 percent of Michigan TANF recipients are dependent on alcohol and 3 percent on drugs.(8) In contrast, based on the widely used CAGE Drug and Alcohol Abuse screener, Ponza et al. (2002) report that 17 percent of TANF recipients in Nebraska have a problem with chemical abuse. We used the same methodology as the Michigan study and found that rates of chemical dependence among Illinois TANF recipients are 2 percent for alcohol, 2 percent for drugs, or 3 percent for either (Figure III.7).(9) These rates are not unlike those in the general population. The 2001 NHSDA found rates of 1.6 percent for drug dependence, 2.4 percent for alcohol dependence, and 3.6 percent for any chemical dependence among all individuals age 12 or older (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 2002).(10)

  • More than 1 in 10 TANF case heads show signs of a learning disability.

We used the Washington State Learning Needs Screening Tool to assess the possible presence of a learning disability among the heads of single-parent TANF cases in Illinois. The tool revealed that 12 percent of case heads showed signs of a learning disability (Figure III.7), which is comparable to the 15 percent found by Ponza et al. (2002) among TANF recipients in Nebraska.

Only 2 percent of the TANF recipients in Illinois have difficulty speaking, reading, or writing English because it is not their native language (Figure III.7).

Logistical and Situational Challenges

For TANF case heads, liabilities for employment stem not only from personal challenges but also from the logistical and situational challenges presented by the people who rely on them for support and by their environment in general. We examined seven types of logistical and situational challenges to employment: (1) health or special needs of family members or friends, (2) presence of a very young child, (3) transportation, (4) child care, (5) housing, (6) discrimination, and (7) neighborhood conditions. Our measures of these challenges are based predominantly on the self-reports of TANF case heads.

  • One-third of TANF case heads are caring for a child, another family member, or a friend with a health problem or special need.

Many case heads are caring for family members or friends with special needs that arise primarily from health problems. One in every three TANF case heads has a child with a health problem, behavioral problem, or other special need (Figure III.9). Among these case heads, about half (53 percent) have a child whose condition limits his or her activities, and about one-quarter (27 percent) have a child who receives SSI benefits (Table III.2).

Figure III.9 Family Members or Friends with Special Needs

Table III.2
Children 's Health Problems and Special Needs
Type of Health or Behavioral Problem or Special Needa
Medical problem 42
Learning problem 35
Asthma 34
Behavior problem 24
Depression or other mental health problem 2
Other problems 6
Child Is Limited in Activities 53
Child Receives SSI Benefits 27
Source: 2001-02 survey of Illinois TANF cases.
Subgroup: TANF recipients with a child who has a health problem or special need.
a Percentages do not sum to 100 due to cases with multiple children/problems/needs.

Moreover, TANF clients may have responsibilities for persons other than their children that may likewise constitute liabilities for employment. The heads of slightly over 1 in every 10 TANF cases (12 percent) are caring for an elderly, sick, or disabled family member or friend. When these broader responsibilities are considered along with the responsibilities for children, we observe that 35 percent of TANF case heads are caring for either a child, another family member, or a friend with a health problem or other special need (Figure III.9).

  • More than one-third of TANF case heads are pregnant or caring for a young child.

Under TANF, states have some flexibility to determine who is required to participate in work or work-related activities. Illinois has decided to exempt from these requirements case heads caring for an infant (i.e., a child under age one). Twenty-eight percent of recipients have an infant in their household. An additional 8 percent are pregnant. Taken together, 36 percent of case heads in Illinois are either pregnant or caring for an infant (Figure III.10). This situation presents unique employment challenges, as employers may be reluctant to hire pregnant women, and child care is often expensive and difficult to find for infants. In addition, recipients may decide to remain unemployed during pregnancy because of health concerns, or they may prefer to remain home while their child is very young.

Figure III.10 Pregnancy and Presence of an Infant in Household

  • Nearly one-third of TANF clients with a child younger than age 13 recently had child care problems that interfered with their ability to work or participate in work-related activities.

During the past year, approximately half (48 percent) of TANF clients with a child younger than 13 used child care other than that provided by a parent, and nearly one-third (31 percent) experienced child care problems during the same period (Table III.3). Among the latter, the predominant concerns are the unreliability and limited availability of providers--38 and 30 percent, respectively--rather than the cost of care (15 percent). Clients with a preschool-age child are much more likely than those with a school-age child to have encountered unreliable providers (43 percent versus 10 percent).(11) Because many welfare-reliant families live in communities with high rates of crime and drug use, child care arrangements with a caregiver who can be trusted are very highly valued by parents. For preschool-age children, particularly infants, the need for a trustworthy caregiver often leads to a preference for relatives and friends as caregivers (Ross and Paulsell 1998b). However, child care provided by relatives and friends tends to be highly informal and therefore the least reliable type of arrangement. It is possible that many TANF recipients in Illinois prefer informal care but find that they cannot depend on it as a support of steady employment.(12)

Table III.3
Child Care Use and Problems by TANF Case Heads with a Child Less Than 13 Years Old (Percentages)
  TANF Heads with a Child Less Than 13 Years
Less Than 6 Years 6 to 12 Years All
Used Child Care During the Past Year 47 52 48
Child Care Problem Interfered with Work, School, or Training 32 23 31
Specific Problems for Those Who Used Child Care and Experienced Problemsa
Provider unreliable 43 10*** 38
No provider available 30 27 30
Cost 13 25 15
Sick or disabled child 12 27 15
Worry about child neglect/abuse 8 0 7
Too far from home or work 4 0 4
Subsidy late, so lost provider 4 0 3
Other problems 19 23 20
Source: 2001-02 survey of Illinois TANF cases.
*/**/*** Difference between cases based on child's age is statistically significant at the .10/.05/.01 level.
a Percentages do not sum to 100 due to cases with multiple problems.
  • Most TANF clients rely on public transportation for travel to work or work-related activities; nevertheless, transportation is a problem for one in every five clients.

The heads of TANF cases in Illinois rely heavily on public transit to get to work or work-related activities. It is the primary mode of transportation for 61 percent of case heads. This figure is not surprising, given that 81 percent of the state's single-parent TANF cases reside in Cook County, which has an extensive public transit system. Nevertheless, nearly one-quarter (22 percent) of case heads statewide drive themselves to work or work-related activities.

Table III.4
Transportation Modes and Problems
Primary Mode of Transportation to Work or Work- Related Activity
Bus or other public transit 61
Drives self 22
Gets a ride 10
Walks 5
Other 3
Does Not Have a Valid Driver 's License 51
Does Not Own or Have Access to a Car 62
Self- Reported Transportation Problem 21
Source: 2001-02 survey of Illinois TANF cases.

A case head's specific circumstances influence whether the transportation options available pose a barrier to employment. For example, depending on access to public transportation, the absence of a driver's license or a car may represent a major challenge for some individuals but less of a challenge, if any, for others. So, rather than base an overall measure of transportation as a liability for employment on the number and type of options available, we based it on self-reports by TANF clients of whether transportation was, at any time over the past year, such a problem that it adversely affected their ability to work or participate in work-related activities. According to this measure, transportation posed a problem for employment for 21 percent of TANF clients (Table III.4).

  • The housing situation of nearly one-quarter of TANF recipients is unstable.

Unstable housing can be a liability for employment because it can disrupt family life and act as a source of stress for the family head. One in every five TANF recipients moved two or more times during the past year, and 1 in every 20 was evicted during the same period (Figure III.11). We have combined these two measures in a summary measure of unstable housing. The measure indicates that 23 percent of all TANF recipients have unstable housing as a consequence of either having moved at least twice during the past year or having been evicted during the same period.


  • One-fifth of TANF case heads believe that a potential employer recently discriminated against them because of their characteristics or circumstances.

Most TANF recipients do not perceive discrimination to be a problem. Among TANF case heads who ever worked for pay, 11 percent believe that a potential employer refused to interview or hire them during the past year because of their status as a welfare recipient (Figure III.12). And 10 percent believe that they were discriminated against because of some personal physical characteristic. Smaller percentages believe that they experienced discrimination because of their race/ethnicity or gender. If we combine these categories, 20 percent of TANF recipients who have ever worked for pay believe that a potential employer discriminated against them during the past year for some reason.

  • TANF recipients live in counties with moderate unemployment and in neighborhoods with high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. Many believe there are serious problems in their neighborhoods.

Almost all Illinois TANF recipients (93 percent, results not shown) live in counties where the unemployment rate in 2001 was less than 6 percent. The rate reflects the fact that 81 percent of all Illinois TANF recipients live in Cook County, which had an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent in 2001. By comparison, the national unemployment rate in 2001 was about a point lower, at 4.8 percent.(13) TANF recipients also live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. Figure III.13 shows that, on average, they live in five-digit zip code areas where 61 percent of residents are African American, 22 percent are white, and 14 percent are Hispanic of any race. (14) They also live in neighborhoods where most of the residents are of their own race and ethnicity. On average, both African American and white TANF recipients live in neighborhoods where 71 percent of the residents are of their own race and ethnicity.


Many TANF recipients believe that their neighborhoods have serious problems associated with unemployment, illicit drug activity, other crime, or poorly maintained properties.(15) The rates of perception of serious problems range from a high of 42 percent for illicit drug activity to a low of 17 percent for poorly maintained properties (Figure III.14). At least one of these neighborhood conditions is perceived to be a serious problem by 55 percent of TANF recipients.


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