Both federal and state time limits can affect TANF recipients' opportunities to receive services necessary to successfully transition from welfare to work. Many perceive time limits as a motivating factor for TANF agencies to provide services and clients to undertake steps to change their lives. However, for clients with unobserved barriers to employment, leaving welfare and achieving self-sufficiency within 60 months as required by PRWORA may be a significant challenge.
In some states, clients face the challenge of leaving welfare in less than 60 months. PRWORA allows states to impose time limits shorter than 60 months - an option 23 states have exercised.36 State time limits vary, including being as short as 12 months in Texas (for recipients with 18 or moremonths of recent work experience and a high school diploma, GED, or certificate from a vocational school37 ) and 18 months in Tennessee.38 Both types of time limits increase the urgency around removing or mitigating barriers to work. For instance, a client with a substance abuse problem must have her problem identified, be referred to services, receive and successfully complete services, and ideally leave welfare for work before 60 months has elapsed, or in even less time in many states.
States with shorter time limits might consider making screening and assessment part of initial intake in an attempt to identify and address barriers to employment as soon as possible. For example, concerned about the 36-month state lifetime limit on cash assistance, Utah's state legislature mandated the addition of the four CAGE questions - a common set of questions used to identify substance use problems - to their comprehensive screening tool in an effort to identify clients with substance abuse problems earlier in the process. Officials in Utah said that TANF clients often mask substance abuse problems. However, identifying unobserved barriers as early as possible is very important since the agency has 36 months to treat clients and help them find work.
36 States that established state time limits under a pre-PRWORA federal waiver that differ from the federal time limit defined under PRWORA can continue to operate under the waiver if they choose. For the duration for which the waiver was granted, the state is not required to comply with the provisions of PRWORA that are inconsistent with the waiver (so long as they noted this "inconsistency" in the state TANF plan). When the waiver expires, the state must impose the federal time limit.
37 Gallagher, L. Jerome et al. One Year after Federal Welfare Reform: A Description of State Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Decisions as of October 1997. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, June 1998.
38 After 18 months of assistance in Tennessee, a family must wait at least three months before becoming eligible for another 18 months of assistance. Families in Tennessee are allowed a total of 36 months of TANF assistance.