One of the most significant challenges facing states and localities is identifying specific conditions and disabilities clients have that may be a barrier to finding and maintaining employment.
Nearly five years after federal welfare reform, states and localities have experienced unprecedented caseload declines. With this caseload decline, there has developed a commonly held belief that those remaining on welfare face multiple barriers to employment, or are in some way “hard-to-serve.” Clients with complex barriers to employment, disabilities, or medical conditions, are commonly grouped under this broad heading.
One of the most significant challenges facing states and localities related to serving the hard-to-serve population is identifying specific conditions and disabilities clients have that may be a barrier to finding and maintaining employment. Pressure to address this challenge is increased by the time limited nature of federally funded TANF assistance. This challenge is made more complicated because welfare agencies know relatively little about the specific nature of clients’ disabilities or health conditions. This lack of knowledge is the result of the fact that clients with barriers to employment were exempt from participating in the employment and training program that preceded TANF, the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) training program. Exemptions from participation in JOBS were based on the existence of a condition that fell under the broad headings of illness or incapacity. Federal time limits and work participation rate requirements have led many states to change their exemption policies and require participation in welfare to work programs by clients who were previously exempt, and some states are beginning to collect more specific information about the nature of disabilities and health conditions.1 Nonetheless, states and localities face a number of key challenges including overcoming their general lack of experience with identifying unobserved barriers to employment and developing effective service strategies to address unobserved barriers.2
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted with the Urban Institute to conduct a Study of Screening and Assessment in TANF/Welfare-to-Work (WtW). The first phase of the study involved a review of issues and challenges faced by TANF agencies and their partners in developing strategies and selecting instruments to identify substance abuse and mental health problems, learning disabilities, and domestic violence situations among TANF clients. The issues and challenges identified through that review are presented in Ten Important Questions TANF Agencies and Their Partners Should Consider (hereafter referred to as Ten Important Questions). The second phase of the study involved case studies of a limited number of localities to further explore how these agencies and their partners responded to the issues and challenges identified during phase one. The findings from the case studies are presented here.3
1 See Thompson, et al. State Welfare Reform Policies for People with Disabilities: Changes Since Welfare Reform. October 1998.
2 See Holcomb and Thompson, State Welfare Reform Policies for People with Disabilities: Implementation Challenges and Considerations, August 2000.
3 Another component of the study involved convening a series of three regional discussion meetings. Held in the spring of 2001, these meetings brought together state and local TANF agency representatives from across the country to discuss screening and assessment issues, challenges, approaches, and solutions. Although not discussed separately, key points from the discussion at these meetings are incorporated throughout.
Unobserved Barriers to Employment
Both Ten Important Questions and this report focus on four conditions that are prevalent among TANF clients—substance abuse and mental health problems, domestic violence situations, and learning disabilities.4 These conditions are often not easily detected, and in the case of many welfare recipients, have not been previously diagnosed. They also represent health conditions, disabilities, or situations that clients may be reluctant to disclose—if they are even cognizant that the condition or situation exists. For these reasons, we collectively refer to this group of health conditions, disabilities, and situations as “unobserved barriers to employment.” Identifying these unobserved barriers requires the development of new strategies and practices, in part because they are so difficult to detect and in part because welfare agencies have little experience in this area. Therefore, these strategies are the focus of our case studies.
It should be acknowledged that substance abuse and mental health problems, domestic violence situations, and learning disabilities in and of themselves may not present a barrier to employment or self-sufficiency. Many individuals with these and other disabilities and health conditions work and care for their families every day. To the extent TANF recipients with these issues are able to comply with TANF program requirements, these barriers would likely receive little attention from the TANF system. Unlike other social or health service systems, the TANF system would be typically concerned with these barriers only if they inhibit a client’s participation in required activities and progress toward obtaining employment and achieving self-sufficiency.5 Therefore, for the purposes of both Ten Important Questions and this report, the discussion presented is predicated on the assumption that TANF agencies focus on “unobserved barriers” because these health conditions, disabilities, and situations impede employment and welfare exit.
4 See Question Two in Ten Important Questions for a review of prevalence estimates.
5 These situations would also receive attention from TANF agencies if they jeopardized the safety of children in the household. Such a situation would likely be met with a referral to the local child welfare agency.
As noted above, this report presents the findings from phase two of this study. It presents a description and discussion of how TANF agencies in six localities address the issues and challenges associated with identifying clients’ unobserved barriers to employment. Four-day site visits were conducted to each locality between November 2000 and February 2001. During each visit, a team of two researchers met with a wide range of TANF agency staff to discuss how identification efforts were carried out in practice. We also met with staff of key partner agencies who assist with barrier identification and provide services to address unobserved barriers.
Additionally, in each site we conducted a focus group with TANF clients. Focus group participants were recruited by local agency staff. Participants did not have to meet any predetermined criteria and no efforts were made to ensure that participants were representative of clients in that site. While comments from focus group participants should be considered anecdotal, they do provide a sampling of clients’ perspectives on an important dimension of barrier identification—clients’ willingness to disclose their barriers—and raise issues that can be explored in greater depth by future research.
Many factors were considered when selecting sites for inclusion in this study. Most important was the site’s approach to barrier identification, described further in Chapter Two. Potential study sites were initially identified through the course of completing Ten Important Questions. For this more indepth review, we selected sites that were undertaking seemingly proactive and diverse strategies to identify barriers to employment. In reviewing identification strategies, we considered the site’s use of screening and assessment instruments, staffing structure, and the partners involved in identification and service provision. We also sought sites implementing these approaches within diverse TANF policy contexts, across different parts of the country, and in localities of varying sizes. Where approaches were carried out statewide, localities were selected based on input from program managers. The sites included in the study are:
Montgomery County, KS
Minneapolis, MN (the IRIS Program)
Las Vegas, NV
An overview of the TANF policies in each site and approaches to barrier identification are provided in Chapter Two. Figure 1 illustrates the geographical distribution of the study sites. As can be seen from the table in Figure 1, the study sites represent a mix of communities. Montgomery County, KS is a small, rural community containing two welfare offices in the towns of Coffeyville and Independence. Owensboro, KY is also a less urban area. Arlington, VA and Kent, WA both reflect large communities bordering the even larger urban areas of Washington, D.C. and Seattle, Washington, respectively. Minneapolis, MN and Las Vegas, NV are large urban areas.
Figure Figure 1: Location Location of Study Sites
a U.S. Census Bureau http://www.census.gov as of 9/17/01.
A Roadmap to the Report
The issues identified in Ten Important Questions guided the case studies and frame the presentation of case study findings. To remain focused on the questions of interest, the discussion of study sites’ strategies are presented in a topical format, rather than by individual site. However, the strategies discussed throughout must be considered within each site’s local context including each locality’s TANF policies, staffing structures, and partners, that influence how identification strategies were formulated and carried out in practice. Therefore, before moving to a more in-depth discussion of identification strategies, we first present (in Chapter Two) profiles of the localities. Further, it should be noted that the discussion of strategies presented within is not intended to provide a comprehensive review of all services provided by the localities’ TANF programs. For example, the report may not discuss key features of the TANF programs operated by the study sites if they do not directly relate to a barrier identification issue or challenge.
Chapter Three provides a discussion of the types of identification strategies used by study sites. This chapter includes a review of formal strategies, that involve the use of structured tools or instruments, as well as informal strategies, that rely heavily on discussion and disclosure.
Chapter Four emphasizes the on-going nature of barrier identification by highlighting the variety of opportunities to identify unobserved barriers that occur throughout a client’s TANF experience. It also offers a discussion of barrier identification in the context of a Work First philosophy.
Staff roles and responsibilities, including the roles of TANF case managers and more specialized staff in the study sites, are discussed in Chapter Five. This chapter also addresses the challenges related to sharing information among the variety of staff involved in barrier identification efforts.
In Chapter Six, we offer an overview of key partnerships formed in the study sites and the roles partners play in barrier identification, service provision, and education of TANF staff regarding unobserved barriers to employment. Chapter Six also highlights efforts employed to create successful partnerships (Appendix B offers a more detailed description of the services provided by selected partners). Finally, we conclude in Chapter Seven with a summary discussion of key observations from the case studies and a look to the future.