Academic journal article Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

The Future Is Now: Transforming, the Welfare System to Identify and Address Chronic Barriers

Academic journal article Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

The Future Is Now: Transforming, the Welfare System to Identify and Address Chronic Barriers

Article excerpt

As the summer 2002 deadline approaches for the first round of people hitting the five-year time limit, policymakers are beginning to debate the content of TANF reauthorization. Yet, concern about hard-to-employ clients, who are still on the welfare rolls and have many hurdles to overcome in moving toward stable work and self-sufficiency, is mounting. At this juncture, implementing strategies to address the chronic needs of hard-to-employ clients represents a critical policy concern as well as a considerable programmatic challenge.

Radical changes in the roles and responsibilities of state welfare systems are among the major consequences of welfare reform. Systems that previously focused most on providing needy families with cash assistance are now reengineering to help low-income parents prepare for work and self-sufficiency. Welfare agencies' success in this new role depends, in large part, on their ability to identify needs and barriers and to link clients to appropriate services and resources.

Bridging the Gaps: Expanding System Capacity

With the first wave of five-year time limits fast approaching, state welfare systems must act strategically to address and support their clients' needs. Many low-income parents' first point of contact with a community's support system is the welfare agency, which must be prepared to serve as the gateway to help clients access a range of services. Furthermore, these services must be broader than the job preparation and placement services typical of the current welfare system's work-first philosophy and should include services provided by other organizations that specialize in addressing chronic needs.

In their gateway role, state welfare agencies have a unique dual responsibility to identify and understand their clients' needs and develop ways to link clients with services, supports, and work preparation activities that can help them address and manage their needs. Many welfare agencies have made short-term progress in implementing these strategies and forging new partnerships, but a more sustained commitment and long-term plan must be in place to improve agency capacity and develop coordinated community service delivery systems.

Active Screening and Assessment

For welfare agencies, the first step in identifying client barriers is deciding whom to screen--that is, either all clients or a subset of high-risk clients who can be targeted for screening. Either way, the role of welfare staff typically involves an initial screening to detect the possible presence of a particular barrier. Screening may be conducted, with easy-to-administer tools, by all welfare caseworkers, by specialized caseworkers, or by trained professionals from other organizations (who sometimes are colocated in the welfare agency).

Although many states have made progress in preparing their staff to screen for some chronic barriers, progress is uneven across four key barriers. Moreover, even the more progressive states have typically focused on screening for only one or two barriers, rather than developing a comprehensive approach to identifying them all.

Learning Disabilities. A small number of states have led welfare agency efforts to develop short screening tools that caseworkers can use to identify the possible presence of learning disabilities. Most notably, Washington state's welfare agency, in collaboration with a team of clinical psychologists, designed a 13-question Learning Needs Screening Tool for welfare caseworkers and other frontline staff to use to identify clients with learning disabilities (Washington State, 1997; Giovengo & Moore, 1997). The tool, which has high reliability, has been validated among a welfare population in several settings. Kansas also has developed and validated a learning disabilities screening tool. In addition, both Illinois and Rhode Island have used or adapted Washington's tool to identify learning disabilities among their welfare population. …

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