Bread for the City has an interesting blog posting on the recent City Council Human Services Committee hearing on the proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
As the Bread posting indicates, Councilmember Wells expressed concern that the Fenty administration isn’t proposing an increase in TANF cash assistance benefits. The current maximum benefit for a family of three is just $428 per month–the same as it was two years ago. Wells seems to think it’s time for an increase, since the Council “proposed … to hold off on,” i.e., eliminated, the increase it approved for this fiscal year.
However, Clarence Carter, the Director of the Department of Human Services, says that his agency prefers to focus on “growing [families'] capacity beyond their need”–in other words, job-related training, plus “connections” to other “goods and services.”
Wells doesn’t think this is a substitute for an increase, especially now, when jobs are so scarce. So perhaps there’s hope for struggling TANF families.
The Fair Budget Coalition has recommended a $2.7 million increase for the TANF program. This would fund a very modest (Carter calls it “meager”) increase in cash benefits–an average of $19 per month for a family of three. Both Wells and the FBC members who testified referred to it as a “cost of living increase.”
And I guess it is in a sense. The cost of living has gone up and so would the benefit. But let’s be clear about one thing. The recommended increase wouldn’t give TANF participants as much purchasing power as they had last year.
Look at the cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. This COLA reflects the past year’s average quarterly increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers–the same index that a number of states use to adjust their minimum wage rates for inflation. For calendar year 2009, which spans part of the District’s Fiscal Year 2010, the COLA is 5.8%.
If the FBC recommendation is adopted, the TANF benefit for the family of three will increase, on average, by 4.3%. So the family would still lose purchasing power, though less than under the Mayor’s proposal.
To understand what’s at stake here, we need to consider that, even with the increase, a family of three that depends solely on TANF for cash income will be at just 35.5% of the federal poverty level. And that is very poor indeed.
In fact, figures in the FBC FY 2010 budget report indicate that the extra $19 would give the family about 10.5% of what it needs for the basic costs of living in D.C.
Growing capacity is a fine thing. But how can a person focus on developing job-related capacities and/or looking for a job when so much time and energy must be spent on the challenges of day-to-day survival. I’d like to see Mr. Carter try it.