Friday, September 29, 2006

Understanding Barriers to Economic Independence

Hoo boy, doesn't that sound profoundly academic after my last, and very trivial post? ;-)

Well it is. The following is an article I wrote for my office's newsletter - the information which, it should be noted, came from my renewed interest in the Grad School of Public Affairs at UCD - they sent me a HUGE packetful of interesting/recruiting info re: their school/program, including their magazine which had a brief blurb on the study I talk of. Funny how things all tie together, eh?

-Without further ado, Ta-DAH! here is the article-

UCD Study Gains Understanding of Barriers to Economic Independence

In 2002, the University of Colorado at Denver’s (UCD) Graduate School of Public Affairs (GSPA) and the Colorado Department of Human Services partnered to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant allowed Colorado to participate in a multi-state study of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, assessing client characteristics that help or hinder their attempts for self-sufficiency. The Colorado report generated by the study was published in November 2003, but only recently was made available on the web.

TANF is the federal program which replaced the older Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program as a result of the passage of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. PRWORA mandated a national restructuring of America’s welfare system, with key changes including:

~A new 60 month lifetime limit on receiving financial assistance for each family;
~Federal requirements that States engage more of their caseloads in work activities; and
~Increasing States’ flexibility in overseeing and implementing welfare and other service related programs.

For Colorado, the Colorado Works program was implemented in 1997 to complement the new TANF program. The State of Colorado decided to pass the new flexibilities, allowed by PRWORA, on to the counties. As such, emphasis on education, on-the-job training, job-seeking and other procedures for TANF recipients vary throughout the state.

Sounds Great, Why the Study?

Despite indications that the changes were helpful for many families to transition from welfare to work, still many families are facing difficulties. According to the Study,

These changes in law and program structure, coupled with a strong economy, led to dramatic drops in welfare caseloads in both Colorado and the nation. While some families have been forced off the rolls due to their inability to comply with requirements, studies have documented that many have left welfare for
employment. But others remain dependent on TANF for extended periods and their
TANF time clock is ticking. For these families, it is likely that they face
barriers that extend beyond limited work experience.

The Study’s focus was to determine why some TANF families are not successfully finding sustainable employment. The methodology for the Study consisted of UCD’s GSPA staff and students interviewing 521 TANF recipients across the state, as well as reviewing files housed at the Colorado Department of Human Services. A total of 5,284 single-parent TANF cases were studied. According to the Study, “These [single-parent] cases comprise about half of the total caseload, but they are of primary interest in studying barriers to employment since the adults in these cases are the ones who are subject to time limits and work requirements.”

We at the City of Loveland Human Services Office feel that it is important for our community to visibly see some of the trends we are facing, and offer this article as an overview of the Study. The entire study is accessible on the web at and has a lot of useful information. (Ya'll kinda already know that!)


Some of the Study’s findings are a challenge to prevailing stereotypes. For instance, many more of Colorado’s case load are short-term TANF recipients than long-term. To quote the report,
More than half have received TANF for one year or less. Indeed, 23% have [only] received assistance for less than 6 months.

Another myth was dispelled when the Study looked at education. While some may be of the opinion that welfare recipients are undereducated or simply uneducated, the Study concluded that Colorado’s TANF recipients are “better prepared educationally for workforce participation” than those in the other 5 states participating in the Study. For instance, the vast majority (71%) had at least a high school diploma/GED, with 41% having education beyond high school. In addition to educational preparedness, the Study suggests that Colorado TANF recipients have or exceed the prerequisite skills for entry-level employment. With these findings, one inevitably wonders what employment barriers beyond education and experience these Colorado families face.

Individual Factors

Is a person able to remain employed if they have repeated absences due to a chronic health condition? For 25% of Colorado TANF recipients, the answer is no, but because they are not eligible for Social Security Disability, they rely on TANF and try to find employment in the meantime. And, how likely is it for a person who suffers from social phobia and yet is limited to entry-level employment dealing with customers to remain in that job long-term? That’s just one example, but 40% of TANF recipients interviewed reported having mental health issues, and without proper vocational guidance to meet their needs as well as appropriate mental health care finding sustainable, long-term employment is difficult. In addition, 18% of TANF recipients demonstrate signs of a learning disability.

Family Factors

Imagine being the parent of a special needs child – special needs being related to either health issues, behavioral issues, or both. Finding childcare which accommodates special healthcare is very difficult, and if between gaps of specialized childcare providers, the parent must be absent from work, for how long can that continue? The same issue is posed for the parent who has to repeatedly leave to put out behavioral fires at their child’s school. Another scenario is having an elderly parent or disabled spouse to care for – but the end result is the same; most employers don’t care to retain employees who are frequently absent. Four in ten TANF recipients face these kinds of extraordinary caretaking responsibilities.

Another family factor that ends up being the barrier to employment is domestic violence. For 20% of TANF recipients, “severe, physical domestic violence,” had been experienced in the last year. Domestic violence alone has intense psychological impacts on the victim as well as the children, and that can factor into employment barriers. But added strain comes when a victim decides to leave the abuser and faces homelessness. How easy is it to obtain employment when one doesn’t even have a mailing address or phone number to be reached at?

Other Factors

~Unstable Housing – The majority of recipients moved one or more times during the year, with 29% moving more than once. After mental health issues and care-giving responsibilities, unstable housing was the 3rd most common barrier to retaining employment.

~Transportation - About one-third of TANF recipients do not have a valid driver’s license, and three in ten do not own or have access to a vehicle.

~Lack of Good Jobs – during the span of this study, 2002-2003, and since, the state of Colorado has been in an economic recession. For purposes of the Study, a “good job” was one that met all of the below characteristics:

Wages more than $8.00/hr
Regular, fixed, day-time hours
Not temporary or
seasonal, and
Offers paid leave (sick or vacation) and health insurance
Only one out of five jobs held by TANF recipients (currently or in the 12 mos prior to the Study) met all of the characteristics. The Study noted that as a job had fewer of the above characteristics, the duration of employment decreased.

Perhaps most disturbing about these barriers is that TANF families rarely face just one of them, instead, most face several, which has a compound effect on the feasibility of finding gainful employment. Peggy Cucti, research director at UCD’s GSPA, said in a recent UCD publication, “The more the barriers, the harder it is overcome any one – and the harder it is to hold a job.”


That's all I wrote for the article, b/c I don't want to step on the toes of local policy makers. But this article PROVES that our TANF offices need to screen for these family/health issues and provide GOOD referrals to service providers who can assist them with those needs, while TANF workers can focus on getting the parent(s) back into the workforce.

And, it also means that there's a huge need for services that 1.) don't exist (i.e. good, feasible transportation - there are accounts of getting a child off to school and then to work taking OVER 2 hours in these parts), or 2.) have not a way to expand....based on current funding.

Something's got to GIVE....which is why, in 500 words or less er, 1300+ words, I want to go back to school so I can be a policy advocate/lobbyist/maker.


  1. Great stuff! I'll pass it along here in Dallas for our story is the same in Texas.

  2. Thanks for coming by Larry! Told you it'd be up your alley ;-)

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