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


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