Recently, a few studies have questioned whether families currently receiving TANF are more disadvantaged than families receiving cash assistance prior to welfare reform (Moffit and Stevenson 2001; and Zedlewski and Alderson 2001). However, all studies that compare the characteristics of current and former recipients find that those who remain on the welfare rolls are more disadvantaged than those who have left. This suggests that, even if the current TANF caseload is not more disadvantaged than the pre-welfare reform caseload, many families currently receiving TANF are experiencing substantial barriers to employment.
An Urban Institute study based on a nationally representative sample of families receiving welfare in 1997 found that current recipients were generally more disadvantaged than former recipients (Loprest and Zedlewski 1999). For example, 40.7 percent did not complete high school, compared with 28.9 percent of former recipients. While current and former recipients did not differ significantly on a number of other dimensions related to employment, such as health status, current recipients were significantly more likely to experience multiple barriers to work. For example, 17 percent of current recipients had three or more obstacles, compared with only 7 percent of former recipients. The percentage of recipients with no significant obstacles was nearly double that of current recipients 42 percent, compared with 23 percent.
Studies conducted in California, Michigan, and New Jersey provide detailed information on families who have not been successful at making a permanent transition from welfare to work. Thirty-two percent of families surveyed 30 months after they entered Work First New Jersey (WFNJ), New Jerseys TANF program, remained on TANF (Rangarajan and Wood 2000). Some received TANF continuously, while others cycled on and off the welfare rolls. Those who remained on the welfare rolls (stayers) had less education than those who had left TANF. Three out of four TANF stayers had some serious health problem; more than one in three had been seriously ill in the past year. In addition, more than half the TANF stayers faced multiple employment barriers, such as poor health, low education levels, and no recent employment history. About two-thirds had received welfare for more than one year prior to entry into WFNJ. In spite of these barriers, two-thirds of stayers had worked since entering WFNJ. They typically worked in lower-paying jobs than those held by clients who had left WFNJ and were more likely to have worked in seasonal or temporary jobs.
The Womens Employment Study (WES), conducted in an urban county in Michigan, was the first extensive study of potential barriers to employment (Danziger et al. 2000). This study found that more than 27 percent of recipients suffer from a major depressive disorder; 19 percent suffer from a physical health problem; 22 percent are caring for a child with a health problem; 15 percent are current victims of domestic violence; 30 percent have not completed high school; and 47 percent do not have access to a vehicle or a license to drive. With only a few exceptions, the prevalence of personal and family challenges is far greater among welfare recipients than among all adult women. For example, welfare recipients are twice as likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder and five times as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.
Among the personal and family challenges that significantly reduced the likelihood that a recipient was meeting her work requirements were: low education, few work skills, lack of work experience, poor access to transportation, health problems, drug dependence, major depression, and experiences of perceived workplace discrimination. Multiple barriers to employment were common: 37 percent had two or three barriers; 24 percent, four to six barriers; and 3 percent, seven or more barriers. The prevalence of multiple barriers to employment is important, since the likelihood of working 20 or more hours per week decreases sharply as the number of barriers increases. For example, the likelihood that a single, African American mother aged 25 to 34, living in an urban area, with one child under the age of two, worked 20 or more hours per week is 60 percent; if she had between four and six barriers, the likelihood decreased to only 40 percent.
The CalWORKS Project was a study of the prevalence of mental health, alcohol, and other drug and domestic violence issues among CalWORKS applicants in Kern County and among CalWORKS recipients in Stanislaus County. The longitudinal study conducted by the California Institute for Mental Health followed 703 women. Initial interviews were conducted using an in-person interview that included such standardized diagnostic assessments as the Composite International Diagnostic Interview-short form (CIDI-SF). The baseline survey found that more than one-third of all respondents were experiencing domestic violence or alcohol/drug dependency or had a mental health diagnosis. One-third of recipients reported domestic abuse within the past year, while about 80 percent reported that they had experienced domestic violence at some time during their lives. Thirteen percent of the sample were found to have a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that resulted from a physical or sexual assault occurring in the past year. Nearly 1 in 10 participants had a diagnosable alcohol or other drug dependence or abuse disorder. More than one-third of respondents in each county had at least one diagnosable mental disorder in the past year; while about 20 percent had two or more. The CalWORKS survey measured many other potential barriers to employment including limited English; caring for a disabled child; physical health problems; few job skills, and discrimination (Chandler and Meisel 2000).
The Alameda County CalWORKS Needs Assessment study was a separate project from the ongoing study in Kern and Stanislaus counties. Conducted by the Public Health Institute, the project used an entirely different survey instrument, but also focused on barriers to employment among Californias TANF recipients. Recent reports presented bivariate and multivariate associations between barriers and employment (Driscoll, Speiglman, and Norris 2000).