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Low-Income Parents with Work Barriers Are Not Supported by a Comprehensive Service System

Document date: July 30, 2007
Released online: July 30, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Contact: Simona Combi, (202) 261-5709, scombi@ui.urban.org


WASHINGTON, D.C., July 26, 2007 -- Wide variation in states’ welfare policies and needy recipients’ access to local services pose special challenges to low-income parents who already have employment barriers, says a new Urban Institute report.

Hard-to-Employ Parents: A Review of Their Characteristics and the Programs Designed to Serve Their Needs,” by Sheila Zedlewski, Pamela Holcomb, and Pamela Loprest, looks at the difficulties many low-income parents face in finding or keeping jobs and related safety-net services. Since 1996’s overhaul of the federal welfare program, cash assistance programs nationwide have ramped up their work requirements while limiting the time that beneficiaries can receive help.

More than 1.3 million adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) contend with poor mental or physical health, substance abuse, learning disabilities, language barriers, limited working skills, criminal records, domestic violence, raising a child with a significant disability, lack of transportation or child care, or unstable housing.

Disparities in the range of tools used by states to screen applicants means that not all barriers necessarily get identified before a parent has to comply with welfare-eligibility requirements.

“Common reliance on individuals to identify their own employment barriers rather than professional assessments means that hard-to-employ parents can struggle for years to find employment before getting the services they need,” the researchers point out. “Some individuals lose benefits as a result of sanctions or time limits. Exemption policies that exclude individuals with significant mental or physical health issues from program requirements can mean that parents languish on the TANF program without getting appropriate barrier removal or work services.”

Other assistance, such as workforce development, vocational rehabilitation, and community-based services addressing mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence, can alleviate employment barriers and support job search. However, coordination among these programs and TANF is often difficult because of operational differences and their patchwork availability.

Unemployed low-income adults disconnected from the welfare system and employment are particularly vulnerable since most of them struggle with more than one employment barrier -- often without supportive services. While half of welfare families have at least two work barriers, 69 percent of those who recently left welfare and 56 percent who have no welfare history and receive no government assistance but are out of work face more than one hurdle.

“Hard-to-Employ Parents,” available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411504, is the latest publication from the Urban Institute’s new Low-Income Working Families project, which examines what low-income working parents need to make their families economically stable. Adults in more than 9 million families (with 19 million children) work regularly but do not earn enough to meet the household’s needs.

Another new paper, “TANF Policies for the Hard-to-Employ: Understanding State Approaches and Future Directions,” summarizes how 15 states interact with hard-to-employ welfare recipients and new federal welfare requirements’ likely impacts on these state efforts. The paper is available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411501.

The Low-Income Working Families project (LIWF), headed by newly appointed senior fellow Margaret Simms, analyzes the risks these families face, incorporating crosscutting research expertise, from housing and health care to labor markets and tax policy, honed at the Urban Institute over the past 40 years.

More from LIWF
Earlier this year, the project published “Framework for a New Safety Net for Low-Income Working Families,” which describes these families’ circumstances and the gaps in current safety-net programs. The paper can be found at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411475

Authors Greg Acs, Ajay Chaudry, Olivia Golden, and Pam Winston recommend five key goals for public policy:

    1. enable parents to meet their family’s needs while working in lower-wage jobs,
    2. help families weather gaps in parental employment,
    3. support parents’ job advancement,
    4. help parents combine work and child-rearing, and
    5. improve children’s well-being and development.

Ajay Chaudry, the director of the Urban Institute’s Labor, Human Services, and Population Center and an expert in social service delivery, discusses these goals in an interview posted at http://www.urban.org/toolkit/fivequestions/AChaudry.cfm.

The Low-Income Working Families project is supported by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. More about the project is available at http://www.urban.org/center/lwf/index.cfm.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.



Topics/Tags: | Employment | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net


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