Scope of the Urban Partnerships Initiative Online Toolkit

The information in the Urban Partnerships Online Toolkit was crafted with the recognition that within the context of DRA, large urban centers face a variety of unique challenges for serving TANF participants. The toolkit offers a number of promising solutions for serving the TANF population and improving conditions that affect both TANF families and stakeholders.

Clients remaining on TANF caseloads continue to need support services to address multiple barriers to employment and reaching self-sufficiency. Some of the most pressing issues facing the TANF population include hidden, multiple barriers to work, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, and learning disabilities. For example, substance abuse poses a definitive barrier to employment. By combining substance abuse treatment with employment activities, clients are more likely to sustain their recovery and maintain employment. In addition, substance abuse often is associated with other barriers to self-sufficiency, such as low educational attainment, difficulty securing child care and transportation, poor work skills, and health issues.1 Mental health issues also can often pose a significant barrier to work for low-income families. In the United States, psychiatric barriers limit employment, and adults with mental illness are more likely to be impoverished because they are disengaged from the labor market.2 A learning or developmental disability can be another hidden barrier, which programs targeting academic and vocational training may not identify, let alone overcome. In light of such hidden challenges, the 26 Urban Partnerships Initiative cities have developed programs addressing the assessment, referral, and case management associated with populations with multiple barriers to work.

Unlike hidden barriers, physical disabilities present obvious challenges to employment for low-income populations. City administrators can struggle to quickly place clients with disabilities into vocational rehabilitation and the programs are challenged with making the determination of what constitutes a legitimate disability, such that the clients may be eligible for Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits. Therefore, cities search for ways to expedite and streamline the process of assessment, service delivery, and appropriate work placement.

Pregnant women are another group with physical limitations, and cities strive to keep expectant mothers in meaningful work activities until they reach full term. While pregnancy typically does not excuse women from work participation, expectant mothers have a difficult time finding employment as employers anticipate they will not return to work after giving birth. One site reported that women often view pregnancy as a disability and are reluctant to engage in work activities. The difficulties facing single mothers continue after the birth of the child, as women try to find child care and the necessary supports to maintain employment while raising children.

In addition, an increased number of recently incarcerated individuals who are reentering the workforce are entering the TANF caseload. In 2001, State prisons released 592,000, and the number has continued to increase.3 While many of these ex-offenders find themselves ineligible for TANF funds, cities must work carefully with employers to place individuals with a criminal record. Often, cities run into difficulties screening clients for criminal records.

TANF administrators also must carefully identify issues that result from domestic violence. As these situations are more prevalent in low-income, distressed neighborhoods, issues arising from domestic violence present additional complexities for agencies pressured to engage clients in work activities.

Education can give low-income families the necessary skills to advance in the job market and foster self-sufficiency. Cities noted that individuals are dropping out of school with mastery of fewer skills and concepts than ever before. Thus, cities grapple to find work activities for participants with extremely limited educational attainment and often minimal work experience. The challenge to cities is compounded by the need to translate materials and deliver culturally appropriate services to an increasing number of foreign-born Americans and non-English speakers.

Housing and transportation issues also continue to have an impact on inner city low-income families. While cities typically offer consistent public transportation, which once was an incentive for poor families to relocate to these areas, this transportation often proves inadequate as today’s low-wage jobs increasingly are found in surrounding suburbs. At the same time, as the nation experiences a surge of "urban dwelling" among middle and upper classes, low-income families struggle to find adequate housing in urban areas. The decline in affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness for low-income families in the United States.4 Homelessness can prevent a family from leaving TANF and maintaining stable employment. As low-income families face significant housing insecurity, they require added support from welfare agencies before they are able to obtain stable employment.

Among groups on TANF, the population that represents generational poverty, with individuals of the same family applying for TANF generation after generation, poses some of the most complex challenges. This prompts city officials to seek more comprehensive, long-term solutions to the cycle of poverty affecting families in their communities. Another unique population that city welfare administrators serve is emancipated foster care youth 19–24 years of age. Benefits for these young people cease at age 19; however, they often are not well equipped for the job market and cannot achieve self-sufficiency without government supports.

As multiple barriers to employment may prevent some TANF participants from immediate engagement in work activity, urban TANF agencies seek out new approaches to providing services and solutions for organizing and managing their offices to best respond to participants needs. Agencies are examining how to offer incentives to caseworkers and customers, balance training and skill development with legitimate work experience, and determine what measures should be taken for participants who fail to adhere to program requirements.

The programs presented in the Urban Partnerships Online Toolkit address these barriers, resolve some of the internal and external issues faced by TANF participants, and introduce new ways to help participants engage in work activities and maintain employment. The toolkit offers ideas, strategies, and tips that can be used to solve the complex issues stakeholders face, describes participant services, the way these services are delivered, and the partnerships and protocols established by service providers and welfare agencies. While the resources featured in this toolkit reflect the experiences of only a limited number of programs, they shed significant light on current and emerging practices in the field and offer guidance to all agencies as they plan and implement innovative strategies.

1 Capitani, J., Hercik, J., & Kakuska, C. (2001). Pathways to self-sufficiency: Findings of the national needs assessment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Family Assistance. 
2 Thompson, K., & Salasin, S. (2007, June). Mental health 101. Paper presented at Achieving Common Goals Conference: Administration for Children and Families and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Arlington, Virginia.
3 U.S. Department of Justice. (2004). Reentry trends in the U.S. Available:
4 Burt, M. R. (2007). National Alliance to End Homelessness. Fact checker: Family homelessness. Washington, DC.