Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Ten Important Questions TANF Agencies and Their Partners Should Consider. What Barriers do TANF Recipients Face?


TANF recipients continuing to be involved in the welfare system face a range of disabilities and barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. Some of these are barriers with which the TANF system has experience identifying (i.e., lack of transportation or child care, low educational attainment, lack of work experience). However, as TANF caseloads have declined and the more job-ready recipients have left welfare, TANF agencies now face the challenge of identifying and addressing different issues and barriers than they did in the past - health conditions, disabilities, and barriers to employment that are often unobserved. It is this new challenge that has expanded the interest in screening and assessment approaches.

Knowing which barriers should be the focus of identification efforts is an initial challenge faced by states and localities. As will be discussed in Question Two, estimates of the prevalence of different barriers, including substance abuse and mental health problems, domestic violence situations, and learning disabilities, among TANF recipients vary. In fact, many welfare agencies have little specific data indicating the challenges faced by their clients and the extent to which these challenges represent barriers to employment. Despite this, there is a common belief that welfare recipients are "harder-to-serve" than they were in the past and that the challenges they face are in some way prohibiting or inhibiting their transition from welfare to work.

Identifying barriers to employment faced by remaining welfare recipients is a new challenge for TANF agencies.

In many ways, identifying the challenges these remaining welfare clients face represents a new challenge to TANF agencies and their partners. The clients who have been the focus of welfare-to-work programs and who have already left welfare were more likely to have job skills and some work experience than those remaining on welfare. Additionally, although TANF clients with significant barriers to employment were likely to be exempt from participation in the JOBS program, many states have changed their policies to require those formerly exempt recipients to participate in work activities under TANF.4 This challenge to welfare agencies is further compounded by the time-limited nature of federal cash assistance under TANF.

Regardless of specific estimates, or lack thereof, each of the barriers faced by TANF clients is important. They range from lack of adequate transportation and child care, to serious physical disabilities, and caring for children with serious disabilities. TANF agencies vary in their experience dealing with these different barriers. For example, most TANF agencies have historically offered assistance with transportation or child care if they present a barrier to work or participation in required activities. TANF agencies also have experience determining if the lack of education poses a barrier to employment.

As TANF agencies have incorporated methods of identifying barriers that are more obvious, or with which they have experience, they are now beginning to grapple with how to identify the less obvious disabilities or barriers that continue to inhibit TANF recipients' transitions to work and self-sufficiency. Because some barriers - such as substance abuse and mental health problems, domestic violence situations and learning disabilities - are not as obvious to TANF agency staff, or may not be observed, they can be referred to under the broad heading of "unobserved barriers." When TANF agency officials describe clients as "hard-to-serve," these are some of the barriers clients face.

There are a variety of reasons barriers might be unobserved.

Why are some barriers "unobserved?"

Barriers might be less obvious, hidden, or unobserved for a variety of reasons. For example, the recipient may not be aware of or fully understand why she is unsuccessful in her quest to obtain employment. A client might acknowledge that she often feels sluggish or has a hard time arriving at work promptly but be unaware that these are possible symptoms of depression. Additionally, some clients may be in denial regarding a barrier such as substance abuse or domestic violence.

Another reason some barriers are unobserved is that, although a client is aware of the problem, she may be hesitant to disclose it and in fact may make special efforts to keep the problem from being revealed. Examples of this include clients who do not want to be labeled or have the stigma associated with a problem such as substance abuse or who are afraid of additional violence if they reveal a domestic violence situation. Yet another reason a barrier may be unobserved is that clients may be concerned that they are in jeopardy of having their children removed from the household if they disclose a barrier such as substance abuse.

Regardless of the reason, these situations require that TANF agency staff employ different approaches to uncover barriers than they might have employed in the past. Simple reliance on standard past practices of self-dis-closure or medical verification may not be sufficient to identify "unobserved" barriers.

What unobserved barriers are considered in this report?

TANF recipients face a wide range of personal issues and barriers to employment, many of which are unobserved. Although each is important and complex, this report focuses on four commonly unobserved barriers:

Substance abuse problems;

Mental health problems;

Learning disabilities; and

Domestic violence situations.


TANF agencies and their partners need to be clear with each other regarding how they define or conceptualize these (and other) barriers. For example, TANF agencies are generally concerned about issues that present barriers to employment. Therefore, although the mere existence of a mental health problem might warrant action by a mental health agency, this problem is primarily important to TANF agencies only in so far as it presents a barrier to employment. Similarly, although substance abuse treatment professionals consider any substance abuse problem deserving of attention, TANF agencies are interested to the extent it presents a barrier to employment.

Additionally, when discussing barriers partner agencies need to be clear about the meaning of different terms. For example, there are several proposed definitions of learning disabilities, yet learning disability experts we spoke to noted that learning disabilities are frequently confused with low educational attainment or literacy problems, as well as mild mental retardation. Further, "mental health problem" is a broad term encompassing a number of specific conditions including depression, anxiety disorders, bi-polar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to name a few. Similarly, what constitutes "domestic violence" varies and may include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.5

4  Additionally, because of the less stringent participation requirements under JOBS, although not always formally exempt, clients with significant barriers to employment were less likely to be fully engaged in the JOBS program. See also Thompson, et al., State Welfare-to-Work Policies for People with Disabilities: Changes Since Welfare Reform. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, October 1998.

5  Domestic violence experts note that domestic violence differs from the other barriers addressed in this report in that it is a situation imposed on the individual, not an illness, addiction, medical condition, or disability.

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