The skills most valued in eligibility workers stand in contrast with the “soft” or interpersonal skills reported as the most important skill required of staff responsible for barrier identification.
In many TANF agencies, case manager positions are filled by former eligibility workers. While an in-depth understanding of eligibility rules may benefit case managers and their clients, the skills required to be an eligibility worker are quite different from those required to be a case manager. Program eligibility determination requires attention to detail and an understanding of, and strict adherence to, complex program rules. Case managers may also be required to have an understanding of program eligibility rules, but focus more on rules related to program participation and non-compliance.
The skills most valued in eligibility workers stand in contrast with the “soft” or interpersonal skills reported as the most important skill required of staff responsible for barrier identification. These interpersonal skills are credited with generating the trust and safety considered key for clients to disclose information about barriers to employment. Further, the ability to identify barriers to employment requires—at a minimum—the ability to recognize characteristics of barriers, conduct interviews with clients to discuss and elicit disclosure, and provide appropriate responses, both verbally and through service referrals. A case manager’s ability to develop service plans and make referrals also requires a knowledge of state and/or local work participation policies and the availability of services in the community. Such knowledge is not necessary to determine financial eligibility.
Case managers in the study sites often possess little formal training as counselors and vary in their possession of the strong interpersonal skills reported as essential to successful barrier identification. TANF case managers in the study sites are generally required to hold a Bachelor’s degree in a social science field and complete training on TANF policies. 26 This contrasts with the skills of specialized staff who are required to have strong interpersonal skills and often more formal education or training.
The extent to which TANF case managers are able to undertake efforts to identify barriers to employment is affected by the size of their overall workload.
All TANF staff interviewed had received some formal training from the TANF agency, although they were frequently unable to recall when the training had occurred or the details of the information provided. Most commonly, staff recalled training related to TANF policy changes, although some noted having received training related to the identification of characteristics, or general understanding, of one or more unobserved barrier to employment. Few staff had received formal training regarding the use of screening or assessment instruments, with the exception of training required to implement or score validated tools (such as the SASSI or ALDS). In carrying out their case management and barrier identification responsibilities, case managers in the study sites rely heavily on their past experiences with other TANF clients and their own life experiences. Therefore their abilities to identify unobserved barriers varied widely, were often based on little formal education regarding characteristics of barriers, and may have been influenced by personal biases or stereotypes.
26 Arlington, VA is an exception. In this site it is common for employment case managers to exceed the educational requirements with some holding Masters degrees in social work, counseling, or education.