Use of TANF Work-Oriented Sanctions in Illinois, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Defining Program Expectations and Requirements


PRWORA established broad rather than specific parameters to encourage participation in work activities, leaving states and localities with some flexibility to decide who must participate and in which activities. In general, states follow one of two approaches in determining who should be required to participate in work activities. They rely on either a universal engagement model, whereby they require all recipients to participate in work-related activities, or an exemption model, whereby they do not impose any work requirements on recipients who possess certain characteristics or face particular employment barriers. Common reasons for granting exemptions include personal and family challenges such as mental or physical health conditions that limit work and logistical challenges such as the lack of transportation or child care that also limit work.

States or local offices that have adopted a universal participation requirement often encourage participation in a broad range of program activities and permit flexibility in the required number of hours of participation. In contrast, states or local offices that exempt recipients tend to focus on placing recipients in more traditional work activities, primarily those defined as "countable" activities under PRWORA. The implementation of a universal participation requirement typically affords line staff considerable latitude to decide both how much and in what activities a recipient should be required to participate. In contrast, the implementation of an exemption approach often requires adherence to a defined set of procedures to determine who should be exempt and the placement of nonexempt recipients in a defined set of program activities.

The study sites all exempted some clients from participation in work activities and took similar approaches for doing so. All the study states grant exemptions for household heads who are experiencing physical and mental health conditions, are caring for a disabled family member, or are a current victim of domestic violence. The states also grant exemptions for household heads in their last trimester of pregnancy. New Jersey requires parents to begin participating in program activities when their youngest child turns four months; Illinois and South Carolina do not require parents to start participating until their youngest child is a year old.

In general, case managers follow an explicit set of procedures to determine who should be required to participate in work activities. While case managers exercise some discretion in modifying participation requirements, they expect most recipients to participate in countable activities for the number of hours per week specified in current federal law.

Key Findings:
Defining Program Expectations and Requirements
  • Although the study sites have instituted formal procedures for identifying recipients who should be exempt from work requirements and for assessing the needs of nonexempt recipients, potential barriers to employment often are not uncovered until participation problems arise.
  • Staff believe that more flexibility in how work requirements are implemented would provide them with greater opportunities to engage all mandatory participants in work activities.

Case managers rely on a combination of formal screening tools, assessment skills, and professional experience to identify clients' assets and liabilities and to determine which clients should be required to participate in work activities. Assessment generally begins at intake and continues throughout service delivery. Case managers use several techniques for assessing clients and identifying their needs, including initial screenings, formal assessment tools, informal interactions with the client, and intra- and interagency case conferences and sanction conciliation reviews.

Initial Screenings. Welfare staff begin to identify clients who qualify for an exemption from work requirements during the initial intake interview or immediately after clients are deemed eligible for cash assistance. Formal exemptions generally require additional documentation and undergo periodic review to determine if the client is ready to participate. Given the usually clear specification of exemption criteria, screening is a straightforward and rapid process. The challenge for case managers is to encourage clients to return the documentation required to verify the circumstances that qualify them for an exemption and to disclose hidden barriers to employment (such as substance abuse, mental health conditions, domestic violence) that may pose problems for participation.

Formal Assessments. In all the study sites, the development of employment plans for nonexempt clients begins with in-depth assessments of clients' assets and liabilities. Some sites use formal assessments throughout the service delivery process. Welfare staff, employment and training service providers, and licensed professionals conduct the assessments. Welfare staff conduct an upfront assessment to determine the types of work activities to include in the client's employment plan and to identify the employment and training service provider to which they should be referred. The upfront assessments also focus on identifying logistical barriers such as transportation and child care and, in some cases, hidden barriers such as domestic violence, mental health issues, and substance abuse. Employment and training service providers' assessments reflect the types of services the agency provides. Agencies that provide education and training services administer basic skills tests (e.g., COPES, COPS, TABE), career interest inventories, and learning style assessments. Assessments conducted by agencies that primarily provide job search services tend to focus on personal and family challenges that may interfere with employment. Assessments conducted by employment and training providers may be conducted individually or in groups. Finally, clients who appear to have mental health or substance abuse problems may be referred for a more specialized clinical assessment. For example, in Illinois, mental health and substance abuse treatment staff who are colocated in the welfare office assess clients and link them to services. In South Carolina, a licensed psychologist at the South Carolina Department of Vocational Rehabilitation conducts in-depth psychological assessments. TANF recipients in New Jersey may be assessed either through specialized mental health or substance abuse initiatives or by vocational rehabilitation specialists.

Interactions with Welfare and Employment Services Provider Staff. According to case managers, clients are more likely to disclose barriers to employment when they trust the staff working with them. Typically, trust develops over time during routine interactions. Case managers report that smaller workloads and an emphasis on individualized case management help them develop trusting relationships that allow them to uncover hidden barriers that often contribute to participation problems.

Case Conferences/Conciliation Reviews. Welfare staff indicated that, in many cases, clients do not reveal hidden barriers to employment until they are faced with a sanction. Sometimes, clients may not be aware of how personal and family challenges interfere with working until they attempt to work or participate in program activities and fail in these endeavors. In such cases, the imposition or possibility of a sanction forces clients to acknowledge the presence of a hidden barrier and provides staff with an opportunity to work with clients to develop a plan for addressing the obstacle. Clients can address these issues formally through case conferences and conciliation reviews.

Exemptions eliminate work requirements only for those with the most serious barriers to employment. Regardless of their circumstances, all other recipients are expected to meet the same 30- or 35-hour per week participation requirement. In view of the wide variation in client circumstances, case managers report that they face many challenges in trying to encourage high levels of participation in work activities. Initially, the study sites almost always place recipients in a standard set of program activities. When participation problems arise, case managers can sometimes grant "good cause" exemptions to excuse clients temporarily from work activities. In addition, case managers can sometimes modify clients' work requirements to account for individual circumstances. Both strategies involve considerable case manager discretion.

Compared with formal exemptions, good cause exemptions are more immediate, temporary, and typically do not require formal documentation. Good cause exemptions often are provided for doctor's appointments, caring for a sick child, or attending a court hearing. They also may be granted for a situation that is expected to last for a short time (e.g., a temporary medical problem). While good cause can be used to excuse clients fully from their work requirement, it is more often used to grant an "excused absence" for missed hours or days.

In the study sites, most TANF recipients are required to participate in a relatively standard set of work activities, mainly group job search, and, in some instances, short-term training and work experience programs. The two sites in Illinois expect most recipients to participate in work activities at least 30 hours per week. In one local office, clients may be assigned to a paid work placement for which they receive the full amount of the TANF check for working at least 30 hours per week. The grant amount is reduced for each hour that falls below the 30-hour requirement unless there is good cause. In South Carolina, the Department of Social Services (DSS) specialty unit provides a range of work activities (e.g., job search, job club, basic and advanced family life skills workshops) for TANF recipients who, like Illinois TANF recipients, are required to participate at least 30 hours per week. In New Jersey, all recipients are required to participate in activities for 35 hours per week. Clients usually are assigned to activities that count toward the federal work participation rate.

Even though the study states rely primarily on a "work first" approach, case managers may modify work plans for clients with barriers. For example, clients with a mental health condition may be allowed to count the hours in therapy toward their required work hours, or the case manager may temporarily reduce the number of hours clients are required to participate in work activities. According to case managers, flexibility allows them to develop attainable requirements for clients with serious and persistent barriers. To provide modified opportunities to clients, the sites relied on various strategies to improve access to specialized services. For example, mental health or substance abuse treatment providers may be colocated at the welfare office or with the employment service provider. One of the New Jersey offices contracts with the Division of Mental Health to provide counseling services for 100 TANF recipients. An employment service provider in one of the Illinois offices offers a series of workshops focusing on mental health conditions, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Another program provides intensive case management, parenting classes, and GED services for teen parents.

While we observed some flexibility in work requirements, staff indicate that they face considerable pressure to place clients in countable work activities in order to meet the federal work participation requirements. One program administrator complained that, in some cases, the limited flexibility forces staff to adopt unrealistic expectations of TANF recipients, particularly hard-to-employ recipients, who are at higher risk for sanctions. Case managers believe that limited flexibility sometimes creates a mismatch between what clients are required to do and what they are able to do. Case managers and program administrators believe that more flexibility would help them in setting realistic participation expectations for families experiencing several challenges in their lives.

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