The six localities visited represent a diverse mix of locations in which efforts to identify unobserved barriers to employment are merely one aspect of complicated, multifaceted TANF programs.
Identification approaches utilized by the study sites can generally be described under two headings—formal and informal. Formal approaches include the use of a tool, instrument, or test whereas informal approaches rely on discussion, disclosure of barriers by clients, or observation of behaviors that may suggest the existence of a barrier to employment.
The use of formal and informal identification approaches are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many staff responsible for implementing formal identification approaches reported that they use a tool or instrument as a part of a much larger process that includes informal identification strategies as well.
Few tools have been developed for use with TANF clients or are designed to address the multiple barriers many TANF clients face. While many still seek an instrument that would accurately and reliably identify a wide range of issues faced by TANF clients, the reality is no such tool currently exists, or arguably, may ever exist.
Generally, TANF agencies in the study sites use few validated tools to identify unobserved barriers to employment. However, the limited use of validated tools among TANF agencies does not indicate a general lack of use of tools or instruments to collect information and explore barriers. Partner agency staff who frequently possess greater expertise and formal training regarding barrier identification and are able to utilize a wider range of validated tools to uncover unobserved barriers to employment.
Informal efforts to identify barriers occur throughout the case management process. Each interaction with program staff presents an informal identification opportunity where clients can disclose barriers to employment and staff can elicit disclosure or observe behaviors/characteristics that are indicative of the existence of a barrier. The important question is therefore, how TANF agencies should integrate barrier identification into this multi-step process? The answer to this questions must take into consideration the various steps involved, the staff with whom clients interact at each point in the process, and the TANF policy context.
Staff in all sites reported using informal identification approaches throughout an individual’s interaction with the TANF system. These efforts were employed to different degrees across different staff positions, but occurred regardless of the use of a more formal identification instrument or the level of skill or training of the individual staff person. Importantly, even highly specialized staff who possess advanced training related to barrier identification noted the importance of informal strategies.
The majority of staff reported that they believe informal approaches are more effective in uncovering barriers than the completion of a specific screening or assessment tool. However, informal identification efforts rely heavily on clients to disclose a barrier to employment or to exhibit a behavior indicative of a barrier. Reliance on disclosure and behavioral observations presents a particular challenge when considering unobserved barriers to employment because many clients are unaware of their condition or may not consider their condition/situation a barrier to employment. Alternatively, clients may be simply unwilling to disclose a barrier to their case worker and make efforts to conceal the barrier.
The study sites have attempted to maximize the advantages of both formal and informal approaches by using them in combination with one another and expecting no one effort to uncover all barriers to employment.