DC Council Tackles TANF Program

I thought about headlining this posting “good bill, bad bill” because the DC Council now has pending two starkly divergent proposals for reforming the District’s TANF program.

Good Bill. Councilmembers Michael Brown and Tommy Wells have introduced a bill to address some key weaknesses that the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and SOME (So Others Might Eat) identified as part of their in-depth assessment of the District’s TANF program.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act would, as its name suggests, expand the crucial work preparation component of the program and lay the groundwork for more comprehensive evaluations and oversight.

It would:

  • Include regular attendance at a secondary school or GED program in the definition of “education directly related to employment” — the only kind of education federal regulations permit. Another related section would allow enrollment at a postsecondary education institution in a program leading to a bachelor’s or advanced degree, provided it developed skills required for employment or advancement. This condition also tracks the federal rules.
  • Align the District’s TANF law with federal rules governing the work-related activities that most adult recipients must perform. The expanded definition would shift the program from its current “work first” orientation by permitting more activities that prepare recipients for full-time, decent-paying jobs. Vocational education courses, “soft skills” training, substance abuse treatment, mental health and rehabilitative “activities” would all count. And vocational education could include adult basic education, literacy and English as a Second Language courses so long as they’re embedded in a vocational training curriculum.
  • Require a detailed standardized assessment of all new participants. The object here is to ensure that caseworkers systematically identify job-relevant skills and experience, potential barriers to work and needs for supportive services.
  • Establish more meaningful outcome measures and require that results be published, both for the program overall and for each contract service provider. For example, the Income Maintenance Administration would have to collect and report figures on the percentage of participants who secure employment and, very importantly, the percentages of them who are still employed and earning 100% and 200% of the federal poverty level both six months and twelve months later. Other provisions address, in detail, how the program and each vendor handle certain portions of the caseload, e.g., victims of domestic violence.

Bad Bill. Councilmembers Marion Barry and Yvette Alexander have introduced a bill that would adopt the federal government’s five-year lifetime limit on TANF participation — or more precisely, adopt its time limit on the use of federal funds as the time limit for District residents to participate.

In other words, no matter what the circumstances, TANF recipients would lose their cash benefits and access to services gained through the program at the end of five years. Recipients who successfully “graduated” from the program, but later suffered setbacks would be out of luck — if not immediately, then fairly soon. Here too circumstances would be irrelevant.

The intent, of course, is to cut local spending for one of the District’s major safety net programs. And the District does have a budget gap to close.

But the timing could hardly be worse. The unemployment rate in the District is 9.8% — undoubtedly much higher for residents with no postsecondary education. As DCFPI has reported, last year the unemployment rate for residents with only a high school diploma or GED was 19%. For those with less, 20.3%.

Even if the participants who’d lose their eligibility didn’t face a labor market that’s still in the doldrums, they’d be kicked out of the program before reforms envisioned in the Brown/Wells bill could have a chance to equip them for sustained self-sufficiency.

On November 8 at 11:30 a.m., the Committee on Human Services will hold a hearing on the Brown/Wells bill. Yes, it will be considered in the same session as the proposed amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act.

A hearing on the Barry/Alexander bill has been scheduled for November 15 at 11:00 a.m. The Committee on Human Services needs to hear from us on this one — loud, clear and firmly negative.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Barry/Alexander bill reaches far beyond the District’s TANF program. I provide the relevant statutory language and some examples indicating its huge potential impacts in a brief followup posting.

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