There are several points at which TANF recipients may have difficulty in gaining access to the employment and training services provided by One-Stop systems. First is the challenge of getting TANF recipients through the door, given that some are reluctant to participate on their own. Second, there may be issues of location and logistics affected by system design. And finally, there are issues of retention and follow-through with this population.
- Work Requirements Matter: One thing that became very clear to us in focus groups with current and former participants was that many would simply not have come to the One-Stop without some mandatory work or participation requirement. Equally clear from these meetings is the fact that once most recipients have become fully engaged in work search activities, they are glad they came and many wished they'd come earlier. Frequently, the issue is not a reluctance to work, but a lack of self-esteem or lack of self-confidence in their ability to juggle family and work challenges. Job readiness programs and a warm, encouraging environment that breaks the challenges down into discreet, achievable goals and opens doors to new opportunities seem to overcome this initial trepidation.
In Tarrant County, the lack of tight work requirements (64.5 percent of TANF recipients are exempt from state work requirements) is compounded by the fact that benefit levels are very low, suggesting that those who continue to remain on the welfare rolls have very little in the way of skills or work experience. Not surprisingly, our focus group discussions indicate that those TANF recipients with the least skills or experience are also the most reluctant to participate in work search, making it doubly difficult to get this segment of the TANF population to actively engage One-Stop services. This was evident in discussions with management and staff about client flow through the Resource Center and local participation rates. This is not to say that as a group, TANF recipients are reluctant to work. Probably at least a third of the current and former TANF participants in our focus groups indicated that they had sought or would have sought One-Stop services without requirement or prodding. Additional TANF participants told stories of seeking out employment assistance once they had stabilized their personal and family circumstances, without being forced to do so. Several spoke of earlier, unsuccessful work or work search experiences. Nonetheless, a significant portion were clear about appreciating a "kick in the butt," as one participant put it.
- Falling Through the Cracks: The fall-off between initial registration for TANF benefits and participation in a JOBS or One-Stop work-search activities can be quite considerable. In Iowa, those PROMISE JOBS participants who fail to comply with work requirements have their benefits restricted are placed on the Limited Benefits Plan (LPB).(15) Over 30 percent of those placed on LBP failed to even make an appointment for orientation to work-search activities, and 58 percent failed to keep their orientation appointment(16) -- suggesting that most of the sanctions for failing to comply with work requirements occur at the very beginning of the process. In Kenosha, managers estimate that fully 50 percent of initial WorkFirst registrants were dropping out before entering or completing the orientation process, but like Iowa, the dropout rate declined dramatically following completion of the orientation sessions.
What happens to those who fall between the cracks? In Kenosha, anecdotal information suggests that many find employment on their own, with a small increase in homelessness and doubling-up of families. Many of those that drop out but are unsuccessful end up re-registering - only 10 percent to 20 percent of the registrants are new to the system, about one-quarter are persons who have been through the program before, and most of the rest are repeaters who didn't make it through orientation the first time. In Iowa, just over half of those placed on LBP decide to participate in the program and have their benefits restored (before losing them entirely), and nearly two-thirds of those who don't decide to participate drop out of the LBP early as well - this latter group tends to be slightly older and better educated, suggesting better employment prospects.(17)
The dramatic fall-off of TANF applicants between registration and orientation to One-Stop services is not encouraging. However, given that this fall-off occurs almost regardless of whether the welfare office is co-located with the One-Stop suggests that many TANF applicants are either intimidated or turned-off by the work requirements: this fall-off does not appear to be related to confusion over where to turn for help or how to find the One-Stop office. For those TANF applicants with such low self-esteem that work search is intimidating, this pattern suggests that more outreach may be necessary to engage them in One-Stop services. However, none of the One-Stop sites seemed to have sufficient resources to permit this kind of outreach, and referrals to other agencies for mental health services seemed to be problematic at best.
- Transportation and Network Factors: One of the serious challenges to full access to One-Stop services for TANF clients are transportation problems. In virtually every site visited, current TANF participants raised transportation as a serious problem. Access to the One-Stop (Marshalltown and Tarrant County), to training (Kenosha's community college is not co-located, and is not close), and to work (Traverse City) are impeded either by long commutes or poor public transit services, or both. As noted in Chapter Two, transportation problems are often related to the location of affordable housing. In addition, in pre-reform years, most of the states had fairly strict rules about the value of any vehicles a family could own and still be eligible for AFDC. For example, in Washington State, AFDC recipients could not own a car worth more than $1,500 - making it difficult for a family to maintain a reliable, non-public source of transportation to work. While some of these rules have changed with welfare reform (Washington raised its limit to $5,000), this issue continues to remain very important for working One-Stops with low-income clients.
One possible approach to this problem, at least for access to One-Stop services, would be to provide computer-based communication networks for One-Stop clients. These connections could be provided either through personal computers or via the facilities of partners with multiple locations, such as schools, libraries, and other public agencies. While some of the job-matching services are currently available in this manner at some of the sites (including the use of kiosks), we did not encounter much discussion of this approach to providing services to TANF clientele (beyond Michigan's experience with "smart cards").(18) Given the current evolutionary status of shared data systems, it is understandable that this kind of approach may be contemplated, but simply has not yet been developed. Alternatively, both clients and service providers may be concerned about the lack of confidentiality of some electronic communications such as e-mail.