In addition to defining activities in which clients may participate, states and localities may also grant exemptions from participation. The most common exemption, granted by 44 states, is for the need to care for a young child. However, 34 states also exempt disabled adults from work requirements.9 As shown in Table 1, only two of the six case study states allow work participation exemptions due to a disability.
It is also important to note that unobserved barriers such as substance abuse and mental health problems, learning disabilities, and domestic violence situations are not necessarily considered “disabilities” in the TANF system. Often, to be exempt due to a disability, TANF clients must produce a medical report verifying the condition. If an unobserved barrier has not been previously diagnosed or the client is not aware that the condition exists, she is unlikely to be given a work participation exemption. 10
Although not granted a formal exemption, some states have other mechanisms to excuse clients from participating in work activities. In Washington, for example, clients may be granted a “deferral” from work activities. Deferring a client consists of granting a temporary reprieve from work participation. Deferring a client differs from exempting a client in that a deferral is granted for a short period of time at the discretion of the worker, whereas exemption criteria are clearly defined in policy and their durations are determined by medical reports. Although exemptions or deferrals may offer a reprieve from participating in work programs, it is important to note that an exemption from work participation does not necessarily mean that the client is not subject to the time limit.
9 Center on Law and Social Policy and Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. State Policy Documentation Project at www.spdp.org as of 11/5/01.
10 The overwhelming majority of TANF recipients are women. Therefore, for ease of discussion clients will be referred to using the feminine pronoun.