The case studies illustrate that perhaps the most comprehensive barrier identification strategies do not rely on screening or assessment tools.
The case study sites offer a number of lessons regarding the issues and challenges associated with creating strategies to identify substance abuse and mental health problems, domestic violence situations, and learning disabilities. Perhaps one of the most important findings from the case studies is that the study sites have developed approaches that integrate barrier identification throughout a client’s TANF experience, rather attempting to identify unobserved barriers at a single point in time.
Barrier identification as carried out in the study sites is a process, not an event. These processes are complicated and incorporate multiple identification strategies. Further, the case studies illustrate that perhaps the most comprehensive barrier identification strategies do not rely on screening or assessment tools to uncover barriers. In part, this is because few tools have been created and validated that fill this need. However, staff who have spent time addressing the challenge of barrier identification emphasize that informal strategies (carried out by knowledgeable staff with strong interpersonal skills) may be equally if not more effective. This is particularly true if the objective is to identify the likelihood of the existence of a barrier upon which to base a referral for additional assessment or diagnosis.
As noted above, the choice of barrier identification strategies is dependent in part upon the skills and training of staff involved in the process. The use of specialists contributes significantly to barrier identification efforts in some sites. These specialist typically have more formal training regarding barrier identification and can use a wider array of validated tools than can TANF case managers. However, the case studies indicate that it may not be necessary to involve staff with extensive formal education or credentials. Staff who have a basic understanding of the characteristics indicative of unobserved barriers, and who can develop a trusting relationship with clients, may be equally effective in this role. However, a staff person’s ability to be effective in this endeavor is also affected by his or her mix of responsibilities and overall workload.
The case studies also show that efforts to identify unobserved barriers do not necessarily have to replace a program’s emphasis on obtaining jobs and becoming self-sufficient. Some might argue that the study sites do not employ a Work First approach by its strictest definition. However, the study sites have found ways to implement barrier identification efforts while remaining focused on the programs’ ultimate objective of helping clients leave welfare for work. This being said, a focus on barrier identification may require TANF agencies and their partners to allow clients more time to obtain treatment or accommodations for unobserved barriers as a step on their journey to employment.
Another important finding from the case studies is that TANF agencies do not have to singularly bear the burden of identifying unobserved barriers to employment. In all of the study sites, partner agencies and their staffs play an essential role by helping TANF agencies identify or confirm the existence of unobserved barriers to employment. The study sites have also demonstrated the value the expertise contributed by a wide range of partners including other government agencies and community-based organizations.
Finally, the study sites have utilized the resources and flexibility provided by federal welfare reform and the TANF block grant structure to create proactive strategies for identifying unobserved barriers to employment. These aspects of the existing welfare system may be debated as Congress undertakes TANF reauthorization and raise important questions for the future.