Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Local Answers to Difficult Questions. A Look to the Future

12/01/2001

TANF clients with substance abuse and mental health problems, domestic violence situations, and/or learning disabilities, will continue to present identification and service challenges to TANF agencies and their partners. The case study sites have made great strides into relatively uncharted territory by developing the identification and service strategies described here. If such strategies are to continue, and new efforts are to be developed, TANF agencies and their partners will require the resources to support staff by maintaining or establishing workloads that facilitate barrier identification efforts, involve specialized staff and/or partner agencies, and provide staff training. If the progress made toward identifying and addressing barriers faced by the hard-to-serve is to be sustained, it will be important for policymakers not to succumb to pressures to reduce funding or limit the flexibility provided to states and localities when considering the reauthorization of TANF in 2002.

For example, the case study sites reported little difficulty identifying and establishing partnerships to assist in barrier identification efforts and to provide barrier-specific services, at least in part because TANF funds were available to support these partnerships. Some sites were even able to use TANF funds to ensure that welfare clients would not face long waiting lists for barrier-specific services. If TANF funding levels are reduced, such efforts may not be possible.

It will be important to guard against the possible erosion of the progress made in developing strategies to help the hardest-to-serve clients and a return to a focus on  more job-ready clients.

Further, flexibility to determine the activities that contribute to federal work participation rates also supports state and local efforts to treat or mitigate unobserved barriers to employment. The flexibility provided by the lower actual participation rate requirement (resulting from the caseload reduction credit) has given states and localities the latitude to allow participation in a wider range of services by hard-to-serve clients—flexibility embraced by the study sties. If caseloads continue to increase, TANF agencies will increasingly face pressure to meet work participation rates and may return to a focus on participation in work-related activities defined strictly by law. It will be important to guard against the possible erosion of the progress made in developing strategies to help the hardest-to-serve clients and a return to a focus on more job-ready clients. Legislative changes to TANF work participation rates or definitions of countable activities may provide this safeguard and support the expansion of barrier identification efforts and barrier-specific services.

The future also holds a number of unanswered questions about how non-discrimination laws will be applied to TANF barrier identification strategies and the provision of barrier-specific services. To the extent unobserved barriers are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws, TANF agencies and their partners have an obligation to provide services and accommodations and utilize non-discriminatory methods of administration. However, the application of these laws to TANF practices has not been widely explored. As additional consideration is given to this issue, more issues are tested in the courts, and practices are reviewed by oversight organizations, questions may be answered. This process is likely to be lengthy and uncertainty will remain while these questions are being answered.

The case study sites offer a number of potentially promising approaches to identifying unobserved barriers to employment. However, answers to the multitude of questions surrounding how best to identify unobserved barriers to employment will have to be continually reassessed and developed within the context of a changing policy environment and economy. States and localities will need to continue to develop approaches to serving clients with disabilities, medical conditions, and unobserved barriers to employment, while balancing competing demands for state and federal funds and taking into account differing local policies, practices, and priorities.

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