New Research: Strategies for Supporting Refugee Families Enrolled in TANF and RCA

Margaret Gibbon  |  July 3, 2018

How are states and local systems serving refugees through TANF and RCA? How are state and program staff coordinating service delivery? And are there innovative strategies being implemented to help refugees obtain employment and ultimately achieve economic self-sufficiency in the United States?

To explore these topics, the ACF Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation sponsored a descriptive study conducted by Abt Associates and its partner, MEF Associates: Understanding the Intersection between Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) Services. In 2016, researchers administered a survey to 51 State Refugee Coordinators (SRCs), obtaining 49 responses; consulted with key experts; and visited eight localities where they interviewed service providers and held focus groups with refugee clients. Here are a few key takeaways from their study:


Coordination between resettlement agencies and public assistance agencies may help address challenges that refugee TANF and RCA recipients face

While agencies and organizations vary in their arrangements for administering cash assistance and employment services for TANF and RCA recipients, refugees must often interact with several providers: their resettlement agency, the public assistance agencies, and employment service providers. In cases where TANF and RCA are administered by agency staff serving the general population, these staff often lack the specialized knowledge, language skills, and experience of organizations that primarily serve refugees.

And the refugees themselves may face challenges navigating multiple agencies, especially when they are newly arrived or face language barriers. For example, most State Refugee Coordinators reported that refugees encounter barriers to applying for TANF in their states, such as challenges with language, literacy, and navigating online applications (see the figure at right). To address challenges like these, some TANF agencies coordinate closely with dedicated refugee service providers or contract with them to provide TANF employment services.

In some cases, states are working to integrate services to support refugees and help address these challenges. In the eight sites visited, coordination strategies included creating specialized units or designated points of contact with resettlement agencies within public assistance agencies, co-locating staff on site at partner agencies, and establishing regular cross-program stakeholder meetings on refugee services and issues. Strategies that integrate multiple programs within one agency include arranging for resettlement agencies to administer RCA (possible in states following alternative RCA models) or to provide employment services under RCA and/or TANF.


Some states are implementing innovative strategies to help refugees obtain employment.

Both TANF and RCA require work-eligible recipients of cash assistance to participate in work-related activities. While most states apply the same TANF work requirements to TANF-receiving refugees as they do to non-refugees, 5 of the 48 SRCs responding to that particular survey question reported that refugees in their state are subject to different work requirements for at least the first six months of assistance. For example, Jefferson County, KY applied the requirements differently for refugees, allowing those with limited English skills to take ESL classes full-time for their first two months in the United States.

In terms of services, providers use a variety approaches specific to refugees. For example, they typically combine job readiness assistance and English language instruction. Job development for refugees is often more intensive than is typical in general TANF employment services programs. At least two of the eight locations studied during site visits, had developed specialized programs for high-skilled refugees and those with professional certifications from their home country, such as re-credentialing programs.


Future research is needed to test the effectiveness of these strategies

This descriptive study only identified innovative strategies—it did not assess their effectiveness. Further research is needed into which delivery models and approaches are most effective in achieving positive results for TANF and RCA clients.  For ideas about potential research questions, read the study at the link below.


Want to learn more?

Check out META’s podcast interview with Sam Elkin, Principal Associate at MEF and a researcher on this project. And be sure to download the new study and research briefs at OPRE’s site:




    This descriptive study only identified innovative strategies—it did not assess their effectiveness. Further research is needed into which delivery models and approaches are most effective in achieving positive results for TANF and RCA clients. For ideas about potential research question.


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