Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Ten Important Questions TANF Agencies and Their Partners Should Consider. Introduction


With welfare reform it is now more important than ever to identify and address barriers to employment.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) eliminated the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) cash entitlement program and the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) training program, and replaced them with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. TANF includes both cash assistance and welfare-to-work programs and differs from the former AFDC/JOBS program in that it is a temporary cash assistance program which has the explicit goal of moving families from welfare to work. This employment mission is reinforced by work participation and time limit requirements —two key provisions of the federal welfare law which hold important ramifications for welfare recipients, especially those with significant barriers to employment.

Under this system of welfare reform, it is now more important than ever for states to use the flexibility provided under PRWORA to find new ways to help TANF recipients with health conditions, disabilities, or barriers to employment make the transition from welfare to work. To do this, TANF agencies must consider implementing strategies to identify the barriers that are inhibiting or prohibiting this transition. Once barriers are identified, welfare agencies and their partners can develop appropriate service strategies to meet the needs of clients so that they can find and maintain employment and transition off welfare.

Implementing identification and service strategies to address barriers to employment within the complex structure of the welfare system—which involves a number of function and partners—is no small task. As welfare agencies consider how best to serve recipients with health conditions, disabilities, or barriers to employment they will likely need to consider the flexibility presented by TANF to develop policies and programs as well as consider how best to use their partners in this endeavor. Partners may include both government entities and the community-based organizations that often serve as the providers of work or barrier-specific services for welfare recipients. When considering partners and service options, TANF agencies may also look to the Welfare-to-Work Grants program. This program, which offers funding to state and local workforce development agencies through the U.S. Department of Labor, is intended to address the needs of the hardest-to-serve TANF clients both while on welfare as well as once they are no longer eligible for cash assistance.1

This report discusses issues related to the development and use of screening and assessment practices (including the use of formal tools) to assist in the identification of disabilities and barriers to employment among TANF recipients. The disabilities and barriers faced by remaining TANF recipients are diverse—ranging from low basic skills and learning disabilities, to substance abuse and mental health problems, developmental disabilities, and physical disabilities. Although each of these presents challenges for TANF recipients faced with the transition from welfare to work, this report focuses on four of these barriers:

Substance abuse problems;

Mental health problems;

Learning disabilities; and

Domestic violence situations.


This report focuses on this limited list of barriers because prevalence estimates indicate they are common among TANF recipients and because they are often not easily observed by program staff and therefore pose additional identification challenges. However, the lack of discussion of other barriers in this report does not in any way diminish their importance or severity. Additionally, although not addressed specifically here, TANF staff frequently note that many recipients face multiple barriers to employment. Many recipients are believed to face complex situations that may include barriers such as lack of education or work experience along with a less obvious barrier, or the co-occurrence of unobserved barriers such as substance abuse and domestic violence. To the extent that these challenges present barriers to obtaining and maintaining employment, TANF agencies must develop new strategies for identifying these barriers and providing services to assist the client with her quest for self-sufficiency.

This report is organized to address key questions that should be considered as states and localities grapple with the challenge of identifying the unobserved barriers to employment facing TANF recipients remaining on welfare. TANF agencies do not face this challenge alone and may find advantages in involving, or in fact may need to involve, partner agencies. Therefore, this report includes questions that TANF agencies and/or their partners may need to consider. It is structured so as to allow readers to consider either the entire range of questions presented or focus on a particular question of interest. Specifically, the questions addressed here are:

Barriers, Screening, and Assessment: How are we using these terms?

Why should TANF agencies consider screening or assessment?

What policy opportunities and limitations are presented by TANF?

How can the case management process aid in identifying unobserved barriers to employment?

Are there tools that can be used to identify barriers to employment?

When should screening or assessment occur?

Who should conduct screening and assessment?

What training issues are related to screening and assessment?

What issues related to privacy and confidentiality should be considered?

What other questions should be asked?


To varying degrees, states and localities are already in the process of examining these questions and experimenting with different approaches and practices. Examples of these approaches are included throughout the report for illustrative purposes only. They are neither “best” practices nor suggested approaches. In fact, few have been evaluated and little is known about their effects, intended or unintended. Nonetheless, they provide valuable food for thought as TANF administrators tackle this challenge.

1  The Welfare-to-Work Grants Program was authorized by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. For additional information about this program see Greenberg 1997 and Perez-Johnson and Hershey 1999.

View full report


"scrnasmt.pdf" (pdf, 816.37Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®