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DECEMBER 9, 1998   11:08 AM
CONTACT: Urban Institute
Richard Deutsch (202) 261-5283
Susan Brown (202) 261-5702
Study Shows States Are Changing Welfare-to-Work Policies Affecting Individuals with Disabilities
WASHINGTON - December 9 - A new national study by researchers at the Urban Institute finds that most states are beginning to require participation in welfare-to-work programs by individuals who previously had been exempt due to a disability. Although the approach varies among states, at least 30 states have changed their policies to increase participation in work and self-sufficiency activities for this important segment of the hard-to-serve welfare population.

The study offers the first national overview of evolving policies on this issue since welfare reform was enacted in 1996. Undertaken for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, State Welfare-to- Work Policies for People with Disabilities — Changes Since Welfare Reform was conducted by Urban Institute researchers Terri S. Thompson, Pamela A. Holcomb, Pamela Loprest and Kathleen Brennan.

Structuring appropriate services for welfare recipients with disabilities represents a challenge not previously faced by the welfare community. Prior to welfare reform, disabled recipients were generally exempt from participating in welfare-to-work programs. Under current rules, states can continue to exempt disabled recipients or they can require them to participate in welfare-to-work programs. When making this policy decision, states must consider the diverse needs of individuals with disabilities while still meeting new federal requirements, such as higher participation rates and a 60-month time limit on benefits. The decision is complicated by the fact that little is known about the prevalence of disabilities among the welfare population and that there is no single, commonly accepted definition of disability.

States Redefine Obligations for Individuals with Disabilities

Despite these challenges, the study shows that 13 states had adopted a "universal participation approach" as of April-May 1998 that requires all recipients to participate in some activities—regardless of barriers to employment, personal situations, or disability. In these "universal participation" states, the concept of exemptions no longer exists.

These states have set up an individualized case management approach that emphasizes recipients' capabilities and acknowledges that the path to self-sufficiency may be long. The activities required are varied and may include substance abuse treatment, vocational rehabilitation, mental health counseling, and even parenting classes. States see these activities as first steps toward self-sufficiency, although they do not count toward meeting federal participation requirements.

Another 17 states had broadened participation requirements to include some disabled recipients who were previously exempt. States adopting this broader approach to participation have done so in a variety of ways. For example, in some states caseworkers are taking a harder look at the capabilities of individuals with disabilities when determining whether they should be required to participate in work or other self-sufficiency activities.

The remaining states had left previous policies in place, with many state welfare agency officials reporting they still are in the early stages of identifying and assessing the needs of recipients with disabilities and determining what services can best move them towards self-sufficiency.

States Grapple with Imposing Time Limits

The study also examines whether recipients with disabilities are subject to time limits on benefits—another important feature of welfare reform. Individuals with disabilities are now subject to such limits in 26 states. In 16 states they remain exempt, while in 8 states they face time limits only if they must participate in welfare-to-work programs. However, even in states where individuals with disabilities are subject to time limits, many states say its still too soon to tell what will happen when these recipients reach their time limit. The study finds that many states are in the early stages of deciding who will be granted a hardship exemption.

The report summarizes the results of discussions with welfare agency officials across the nation. A follow-up next year will produce detailed case studies of policies and practices in four states.


State Welfare-to-Work Policies for People with Disabilities — Changes Since Welfare Reform by Terri S. Thompson, Pamela A. Holcomb, Pamela Loprest and Kathleen Brennan can be obtained from Ms. Joyce Brown-Moore, DHHS, 202-690-6443. Copies are also on the Urban Institute website at

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research organization established in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Its objectives are to sharpen thinking about efforts to solve society's problems, improve government decisions and their implementation, and increase citizens' awareness about important public choices.




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