DC Should Spend Some of BIG Surplus on Urgent Safety Net Needs

January 28, 2013

Tomorrow, the District’s Chief Financial Officer reportedly plans to release the results of the Fiscal Year 2012 audit. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, it will show a surplus of at least $140 million — maybe as much as $400 million.

Under current law, the entire surplus, no matter how large, must go into the fund balance — essentially, a savings account.

The DC Council passed the law in 2010, after several years of tapping reserves to make up for revenue drops during the recession.

The law might have made sense then, though I personally feel that such hand-tying measures are a poor substitute for responsible policymaking.

Sweeping the whole surplus into savings certainly doesn’t make sense now, when the Council has identified priorities to fund if the CFO projected higher revenues within the first three quarters of the year.

That he didn’t reflects his very conservative approach to ensuring budgets remain balanced — clearly seen in his accounts of potential impacts on the national economy.

He did nevertheless project a surplus close to $140 million at the end of the fiscal year.

As I said at the time, the Mayor could have asked the Council to pass a bill that would have freed up some of the surplus for items on the contingency revenue “wish list.”

The Fair Budget Coalition and grassroots supporters urged him to do this — and the Council to approve the request.

Nada. So as things stand now:

  • Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of more than 60 months will lose a portion of their meager cash benefits. For about 6,100, this will be a second cut.
  • At the same time, the TANF program won’t have as much as it needs for job training, counseling and other services that could help some of these families “graduate” from welfare to work.
  • The Department of Human Services could face a shortfall of at least $7 million for homeless services. And even if it got that, it will again start denying shelter to homeless families when the winter season officially ends — unless it gets more than is needed to plug the identified budget gap.
  • Meanwhile, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the main source of local budget support for affordable housing construction and preservation — will remain shy $20 million. So there’ll be minimal new funding for long-term housing solutions to homelessness.
  • And as if this weren’t enough, I’m told that homeless youth could have an even harder time getting shelter and services when they need them, due to recent agency contract changes.

The Mayor and Council could meet all these needs and still have a stash to add to the burgeoning fund balance — already $1.1 billion by the end of 2011.

All that’s needed is a reset of what seem to be some skewed priorities — or perhaps a thoughtless adherence to a commitment made when the District’s financial affairs were quite different.

Or perhaps only a preoccupation with other things, e.g., how Councilmembers would be accommodated during the inauguration.

Whatever explains the inaction thus far, another surge of grassroots pressure could persuade our decision-makers to do the right thing.

The Fair Budget Coalition has an editable letter we can send them.

UPDATE: The CFO reported a surplus of $417 million. The Mayor intends to bank it all, increasing reserves to $1.5 billion. He’s indicated that he might see his way clear to making some investments in social programs (unnamed) if revenue projections for the current fiscal year are revised upward.


Food Stamp Benefits Will Drop 10 Percent If Congress Doesn’t Undo Cuts

January 23, 2012

As many of you probably know, the Recovery Act increased the maximum food stamp benefit by 13.6%. For a family of four, this has meant as much as $80 a month more for groceries.

The boost was originally supposed to last until the increase was no greater than the cumulative annual increases in food price inflation. That was expected to happen no sooner than some time late in 2018.

Then came the need to extend two expiring parts of the Recovery Act that provided states with some urgently-needed fiscal relief. The bill couldn’t get through the Senate without a pay-for, i.e., some budget changes that would fully offset the costs.

The Democratic leadership ultimately decided to offset nearly half the costs by moving the end date for the food stamp boost back to April 2014.

Next things you know, there was a need to pay for the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act. And the Senate decided again to tap food stamp benefits. This time it lopped five months off the already-foreshortened boost.

The President’s proposed budget for this fiscal year would have put the five months back. But his budget was effectively dead on arrival in Congress.

So as things stand now, food stamp benefits will revert to what they’d have been if adjusted only for inflation in November 2013.

The Congressional Research Service estimates the initial per person loss at somewhere between $10 and $15 a month — an average of about 10%.

This might not seem like a lot. But as I’ve written before, food stamp benefits are egregiously low, even with the boost.

We’ve got new evidence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself.

In 2010, it reports, 41.5% of households that got food stamp benefits had “very low food security.” This means that at least one member of the household sometimes had to skimp on meals or skip them altogether because there wasn’t enough money for food.

Now low-income families may have to get along on considerably less. And our anemic economy may lose the biggest bang-for-the-buck stimulus we’ve got.

The Food Research and Action Center has launched a grassroots campaign to get the cut-off months restored, along with a now-expired suspension of a targeted time limit on food stamp benefits.

It has an online letter we can send to the President asking him to restore the two Recovery Act measures as part of his proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

It also encourages us to weigh in with our Members of Congress.

Not much use if we live in the District of Columbia. But we disenfranchised souls can still do our bit by passing the word along to friends and relatives who live anywhere else in the U.S.


Home Care Workers Denied Basic Wage Rights

July 24, 2011

My sister died just the way she wanted to. At home, with her bed near the window so that she could look out and watch her cats playing.

This was possible only because she had 24/7 home health care, provided by a quiet, caring, capable aide.

Most people who receive home care aren’t in the last stages of a fatal disease. Some are like my guest blogger Laura and her brother, whose disabilities would make it unsafe for them to be home alone.

Most, however, are elderly people who need some variable mix of services to continue living independently. My mother-in-law, for example, is able to contentedly “age in place” because a home health aide comes in to help with housekeeping, grocery shopping and the like.

All told, more than 10.3 million Americans need some form of long-term care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expects the number to rise to 27 million by 2050.

Will enough qualified care workers be available to serve the many millions who’ll be best off at home? Doubtful unless some major policy changes are made.

Here’s the first — and to me a shocker. Home care workers* are, at this point, exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime requirements.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia provide some coverage under their own wage laws. Here in the District, as in five of these states, only the minimum wage is required — not the overtime rate.

As the National Employment Law Project explains, the federal exemptions reflect an over-broad interpretation of a carve-out Congress made when it extended coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act to domestic workers.

NELP recommends two related regulatory fixes. No Congressional action required — thank heavens! There is, however, a bill pending in Congress that would force the Labor Department to act.

In 2009, the average home care worker wage was $9.34 an hour. The average annual wage would thus have been $20,283, assuming full-time, year-round work and no overtime. Barely enough to lift a family of three above the federal poverty line.

But PHI, which advocates for long-term care workers, tells us that a large percentage work only part-time or for part of the year. Average annual earnings were thus $16,800.

As a result, 46% are poor enough to qualify for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Sadly ironic when so many of them indirectly get their wages from Medicaid.

Needless to say, morale is low and turnover high — an estimated 50%-80% a year.

Clients who need stability have to continually adjust to new caregivers — and new caregivers to them.

Employers incur ongoing recruitment and training costs. A vicious cycle here since the more they spend due to turnover, the less they’re ready to invest in turnover-reducing wages.

And, of course, some of the best potential candidates look elsewhere from the get-go.

Still, that average hourly wage is more than the minimum the FLSA requires. And the fixes NELP recommends wouldn’t compel states with higher minimums to cover home care workers.

So what would a more appropriate federal rule achieve? Some important things, I think.

First and foremost, it would entitle all home care workers to the same base-level hourly rates as the vast majority of other workers in the country. This would mean, among other things, that they’d be paid for time spent traveling from one client to the next — and, of course, time-and-a-half for extra long hours.

It would also formally recognize home care work as a genuine paraprofessional occupation — one that entails far more than providing some “companionship” to elderly and disabled people.

These two changes would help ensure a sufficient supply of well-trained, experienced home care workers — the sort we’d want for ourselves and our family members.

Emphasis here on “help” because the FLSA rule change is, as logicians say, necessary but not sufficient. It would, however, rectify what seems a clear case of economic injustice.

There are currently about 1.7 million home care workers in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 2.5 million by 2018. That’s an awful lot of hard-working people to leave at risk of poverty.

If you agree, you’ve got a chance to weigh in right now.

The Department of Labor is holding two call-in “listening sessions” on the home care exemption. They’re scheduled for Monday, July 25 and Wednesday, July 27, both 4:00-5:00 EST. Call-in number and passcode here.

* Home care workers belong to one of two occupational categories in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ classification system — home health aides and personal care aides. This issue brief from PHI details duties and distinctions.


Why Medicaid Matters, By A Young Blogger Who Knows

July 5, 2011

I found this posting on Laura’s Life and asked to cross-post it because it truly does tell us, as its title says, why Medicaid matters.

Laura is a fifth grader at a middle school in Zionsville, Indiana — “the middle of nowhere,” as she says. She’s been blogging since October 2009 about the many, many books she reads. You can learn more about this extraordinary guest blogger here.

I usually blog about books and things related to books. But because some of you have sort of gotten to know me and care about what happens in my life, I decided to interrupt my blog and write about something really important going on in my life right now.

Next Thursday, July 7th, I am going to the White House. My mom is meeting with administration officials to talk about Medicaid and why it matters to us and our family.

You might be surprised how much it matters to me. My parents have health insurance for our family from their jobs, but it is not enough to cover the costs and needs that come with Mitochondrial Disease.

Without Medicaid, I wouldn’t have this blog because I wouldn’t have a computer or books of my own. My family would have declared bankruptcy years ago. I wouldn’t have my scooter to get around. I would have a cheap manual wheelchair, so I wouldn’t be independent.

My parents wouldn’t be able to work as much or volunteer because we would lose access to the health aide that takes care of Matthew and me when my parents can’t because we can’t stay home alone with our medical issues like our peers do.

My dad would have never gotten his government positions because we would need him to push wheelchairs so Matthew and I could do something.

My life would be completely different.

I can’t believe some policymakers thought they could do away with Medicaid waivers and it would all be okay. All the different kinds of Medicaid that exist exist for a reason. Doing away with any of them would significantly impact lives.

And it is better for everyone that Medicaid exists because without my Medicaid waiver, my parents wouldn’t be able to do as much as they do for the community.

So I am going with my mom because this matters to me and kids like me.

You can help too! Please call and email both of your Senators and your Representative. Let them know how important Medicaid is. You can tell them how it matters to your friend Laura!


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