Wisconsin Settles Dispute over Treatment of Disabled TANF Recipients

May 05, 2010

By Josh Bone

By entering into a voluntary compliance agreement with the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Wisconsin's Department of Children and Families recently settled a longstanding dispute over whether the Wisconsin W-2 Program (Wisconsin's TANF program) complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA requires states to make needed accommodations for TANF recipients with disabilities and to provide these recipients with appropriate work activities.

The original complaint, filed by the ACLU Foundation of Wisconsin and Legal Action of Wisconsin, accused the Department of Children and Families of failing to assess the potential limitations of W-2 participants, failing to provide disabled participants required accommodations or modified work requirements, and sanctioning or closing the cases of disabled participants who could not meet federal work requirements.

Under the terms of the voluntary compliance agreement, the W-2 Program will, among other things: appoint new officials to oversee ADA compliance; conduct routine disability assessments for all incoming W-2 participants (assuming the participants consent), and again whenever a W-2 participant's placement changes; provide for professional assessments of all W-2 participants whom the routine assessments establish might have disabilities; and enact policies ensuring that W-2 agencies and contractors provide disabled recipients with necessary accommodations. 

A likely cause of the W-2 Program's problems is that federal TANF work participation requirements treat disabled recipients the same as all other TANF recipients and do not allow states credit for engaging recipients with disabilities in modified work activities.  As a result, state work participation rates can decrease if states make appropriate modifications for individuals with disabilities. Unfortunately, in order to avoid this negative effect on their work participation rates, some states have failed to provide adequate accommodations or modified work requirements.  TANF recipients with disabilities have also been disproportionately likely to be sanctioned. 

Work is underway at the Federal level to eliminate this perverse incentive.  U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin recently introduced HR 5083, which would allow states to count recipients with disabilities toward the federal work participation rate based on modified work participation requirements, and would temporarily eliminate work participation requirements for TANF recipients with severe disabilities.  If passed, Rep. Moore's legislation might help avoid future recurrences of problems such as those found in the W-2 Program.      

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