Federal law limits activities that can count toward the participation rate, but leaves states with some flexibility to define these activities. The Congressionally-specified countable work activities that can be used to meet a state's work participation rate are:
Job search and job readiness
Vocational education and training
Community service programs
Subsidized private employment
Subsidized public employment
Providing child care to community service participants
Satisfactory school attendance
Education related to employment
Job skills training
Additionally, TANF recipients in three activities (all related to education and training) can only be counted towards a state's monthly all-family participation rate after the recipient has engaged in work-related activities in that month for at least 20 hours per week.48
States concerned with screening, assessment, and treatment for clients with disabilities and unobserved barriers to work need not simply adopt the activities in the federal law. Instead they have the flexibility to broadly define allowable work activities to include many services to help disabled recipients or recipients with unobserved barriers to work. States choosing to allow recipients to participate in activities that do not count toward the federal participation rate must determine if they can meet the required rate with the percentage of clients in countable activities, or if they are willing to risk the financial penalties associated with not meeting federal work participation rates.
Some states use PRWORA's flexibility to allow clients to participate in activities that do not count toward federal participation rates.
While some states have adopted only federally countable activities, other states have used the flexibility to include disability screening, assessment, and treatment as allowable activities. Minnesota allows clients in remedial education and working part-time to receive work credit for the hours spent in remedial education. Similarly, officials in Montana said they firmly believe in concurrent "work activities" for clients unable to work full-time and, therefore, allow clients to receive treatment as needed and to engage in employment as possible.
States have considerable flexibility in defining work activities beyond the initial 30 hours per week needed to meet participation rates. The examples above illustrating Minnesota's and Montana's alternative work activities reflect this flexibility. It is important to note that these alternative work activities are allowable in Minnesota and Montana. Clients with barriers to work or disabilities may have difficulty or be unable to participate in 30 hours per week of federally defined countable activities. To the extent that these activities are unrealistic for these clients, states will have to consider whether or not they can meet federal work participation rates and allow participation in non-countable activities. Many states allow participation in non-countable activities, but only in conjunction with participation in a countable activity for the required number of hours. Thus, activities TANF recipients are allowed to engage in are influenced by the state's ability to meet federal work participation rates.
This complicated rate calculation again illustrates the importance of the definition of TANF "assistance" and states' choices regarding what services to provide and how those services are funded. The guidelines around countable activities also demonstrates constraints states face to assure they achieve required rates, yet also provide flexibility as illustrated by the latitude states have to determine allowable activities.
48 It is also important to note that recipients participating in job search or job readiness can be counted towards a state's monthly participation rate only if they have participated in that activity for less than six weeks in any fiscal year (or 12 weeks if the state's unemployment rate is 50 percent higher than the national rate), and have not already been in job search for more than four consecutive weeks. In addition, not more than 30 percent of a state's average monthly participation calculation can include persons in vocational education or school, and individuals who participate in vocational education for more than 12 months do not count toward the rate.