DC TANF Families Far Below Poverty Line, Even With Uncut Benefits

November 20, 2014

Shortly before the election, Washington Post reporter Rachel Weiner observed that none of the mayoral candidates had even mentioned “a dramatic change in the city’s welfare program that could drag many poor families into further distress.”

She was referring to the District’s decision to phase out Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to families who’ve received them for a lifetime total of five years. The DC Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut — and for good reasons, as Weiner indicates.

But the cuts have gone forward again. They’re likely to leave more than 6,000 families with no cash assistance whatever come next September — unless the Council and soon-to-be Mayor Bowser agree to change the law.

But what about families whose benefits haven’t been cut? Not much of a safety net for them, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ recent state-by-state update on the benefits shows.

CBPP looks at the maximum cash benefit a single parent with two children can receive. That was $428 in the District when the Center did its analysis.

A provision in the latest Budget Control Act, i.e., the package of legislation that’s paired with the budget proper, provides for a cost-of-living adjustment this fiscal year, based on the Consumer Price Index.

That, I’m told, will boost benefits by 1.5% — just making up for what our three-person family’s benefit lost in value due to inflation during the July 2013-14 period.

The family will still have an income at about 26% of the federal poverty line. And it will be considerably worse off than three-person families were when TANF began.

Adjusting for inflation, the maximum benefit for our D.C. family has lost about a third of its real-dollar value. Losses were smaller in more than half the states.

And, as we all know, the cost of living here is higher than in most places. CBPP provides just one measure — the gap between the maximum TANF benefit for three-person families and the fair market rents the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set for a modest two-bedroom apartment.

The pre-COLA maximum benefit for our D.C. family is 29.1% of the FMR for the apartment. In other words, the family couldn’t come anywhere near to paying for it, even if it spent its entire benefit on rent.

This is true for families in every state, but the rent shortfall is greater than the District’s in only two — Mississippi and Tennessee. Not, I suppose, states the District would choose as benchmarks.

Rankings of this sort aren’t nearly as relevant as the measures of how woefully inadequate TANF benefits are — and how more woefully in adequate they’ve become over time.

So far as housing is concerned, the maximum for our D.C. family would have covered nearly 44% of the FMR in 2000 — still a very large shortfall, but smaller because the benefit was worth more and rents in our area hadn’t skyrocketed.

Now, it’s true that some TANF families in the District have more cash income than the maximum benefit indicates because our local program exempts a fair amount of earned income when setting benefit levels.

Also true, however, as indicated above, that many families are receiving far less than the maximum. The phase-out alone has left some three-person families with as little as $152 a month.

Most, if not all of the families, however, receive a separate cash-equivalent benefit from SNAP (the food stamp program). Yet the cash value of SNAP benefits still leaves TANF families far below the poverty line.

CBPP shows this by combining the average monthly SNAP benefit for TANF families with the maximum the three-person family can get from TANF. With the two benefits, so defined, our D.C. TANF family was at 54.4% of the FPL in July.

But, says CBPP, this is probably an overstatement for many families because the average SNAP benefit it calculated assumes housing, plus utility costs high enough to qualify families for the maximum.

No such costs for the families in the DC General shelter, most of whom depend on TANF benefits. And lower costs, if any that families can claim if they’re doubled-up with accommodating friends or relatives.

There could be fewer homeless families if the District substantially increased TANF benefits now, as originally proposed, and modified the phase-out to preserve benefits for families who’d otherwise become destitute, even though the parents had done everything they were told to.

These could include families with a parent who’s working, but not able to earn enough to support herself and her kids and those with a parent who isn’t working because jobs she could qualify for are just too scarce.

And then perhaps there are parents who didn’t do everything they were told to because they couldn’t, e.g., those with certain intellectual disabilities or PTSD that caseworkers had failed to identify.

But such exemptions would still leave some families subject to phased-out benefits that would sink them even deeper in poverty than they already are — and less likely to achieve the self-sufficiency that TANF is supposed to promote.

How can you focus on preparing for — or seeking — work when you’re trying to figure out where you and your kids will spend the night or how you’ll feed them now that you’ve run through your monthly SNAP benefit?

Problems even for parents who are still within the rigid time limit now.

 


Bills Would Bring Income Support for Low-Income Seniors and People With Disabilities Into the 21st Century

August 18, 2014

Nearly 8.4 million poor and near-poor people in this country depend, at least in part, on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits to make ends meet. Most are people under 65 who have severe disabilities, but roughly 2.1 million are seniors.

SSI benefits are extremely low — currently a maximum of $721 a month for individuals and $1,082 for couples, when both spouses qualify. They’re the only source of income for more than half the people who receive them.

This is one, though probably not the only reason that the poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities is more than 16% higher than the rate for those without them.

It’s also probably one reason that nearly one in seven seniors lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s latest Supplemental Poverty Measure report.

Bills introduced in Congress would improve the financial circumstances of many SSI recipients — and in several ways. They’d also enable more low-income seniors and people with disabilities to qualify.

The maximum benefit would still inch up annually, based on increases in the consumer price index the Social Security Administration uses.

But the bills, as their title suggests, would restore SSI by updating and then indexing to a consumer price measure the dollar amounts of three provisions that haven’t been adjusted for a very long time — in two cases, not since the program was created in 1972.

The bills would also wholly eliminate a provision that may deter friends and family members from lending a helping hand — and penalizes beneficiaries when they do.

Further explanation of some pretty complicated stuff.

Exclusions. SSI benefits are adjusted down from the maximum based on two types of income SSI recipients may receive. But in both cases, the adjustments begin only if the income exceeds a certain amount. This is known as an exclusion.

One exclusion applies to income earned from work. At this point, it’s $65 a month — about nine hours at the federal minimum wage. Any earnings above the amount reduce benefits at a rate of 50 cents for every dollar earned.

The proposed Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act would immediately raise this exclusion to $357, nearly restoring the value it originally had.*

It would thus also restore the incentive to work, when possible. So it would, among other things, encourage recipients to see whether they could “graduate” from SSI by engaging in substantial gainful activity.

The second exclusion applies to certain other types of income, e.g., retirement benefits, interest on savings or some combination thereof. It’s currently $20 a month. Anything more reduces benefits on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The bills would initially raise this exclusion to $110.

Assets. To become — or remain — eligible for SSI, a senior or severely disabled person can have no more than $2,000 in savings or other resources that could readily be converted to cash, e.g., a life insurance policy, heirloom jewelry (unless the recipient wears it). The asset limit for couples is $3,000.

Neither limit has been adjusted since 1989, when dollars went a whole lot further than they do now.

The very low limits pose significant problems. From one perspective, they exclude people who genuinely need the benefits. From another, they keep SSI recipients from saving enough to cope with all but the most minimal emergencies.

As a benefits coordinator at Bread for the City notes, moving costs alone may exceed the limit. So it can keep recipients stuck in housing they can’t afford — or perhaps in supportive housing they no longer need.

She also notes the perverse incentive to spend down savings, even on things not needed — and also to rapidly spend down the lump sum back-payments the SSI program frequently makes because the approval process tends to be slow.

The bills would increase the asset limits to $10,000 for an individual and $15,000 for a couple. Then, as I said, they would annually rise to preserve their real-money value — just as the exclusions would.

In-Kind Support and Maintenance. Some very complicated rules apply when recipients don’t pay the full costs of their food and shelter, with or without SNAP (food stamp) benefits and housing assistance.

Even the Social Security Administration finds the rules “cumbersome to administer” — and both burdensome and intrusive for recipients.

Basically, SSI benefits are reduced, up to a third, when recipients live with someone else and don’t pay their full share of food and housing costs. Exceptions here if the someone else is a spouse or the recipient a minor-age child.

But when the child turns 18, the benefit cuts kick in — and they come on top of any cuts due to income exceeding the exclusions.

Benefits are also reduced if, for example, a friend or relative pays a utility bill — or buys some groceries when, as so often happens, SNAP benefits run out before the end of the month.

The SSI Restoration Act would repeal this part of the law — and with it, the unintended undermining of what we like to think of as America’s family values.

I don’t suppose I need to tell you that the bills are going nowhere in this Congress. But perhaps they’ll spur some movement toward reforming a good program that sorely needs revisions to bring it into the 21st century.

* The value would have been fully restored, with a little extra if Congress had passed the SSI Restoration Act last year, when it was introduced in the House. This is also true for the general income exclusion.

 


What’s a Poor Mother With No Childcare Subsidy to Do?

July 10, 2014

Perhaps you’ve read about Sanesha Taylor. She’s the Scottsdale, Arizona mother who left her baby and toddler in the car while she interviewed for a job.

Got arrested and put in jail. Lost custody of her children. Story picked up by a local TV channel and spread all over the internet. So no job, of course. And dimmer prospects because she’s already got a felony charge on her record — and could be convicted.

No one — least of all Sanesha — thinks it’s okay to leave your kids in a car unattended, especially on a hot day. But she was between the rock and the hard place because she needed that job and had no one to look after her children.

She had thought she would until the last minute, but the informal babysitting arrangements she’d relied on fell though. So she felt she had no choice but to blow off the interview — and the chance of a job that would pay more than enough to end her family’s homelessness — or to take the kids with her and leave them in the car.

This story would be altogether different — and we would never have read it — if she’d had affordable, high-quality child care. For her — and many, many other low-income parents — that means child care subsidized with public funds.

She once had a child care subsidy, but lost it when her employer cut her work hours — and then fired her when she took time off to prevent a miscarriage. Reportedly was offered a job elsewhere, but couldn’t take it because she couldn’t find child care.

Arizona isn’t the only state that terminates childcare subsidies when parents lose their jobs and don’t find another PDQ.

Witness for Hunger member Tangela Fedrick, who lives in Philadelphia, tells of a similar experience. Like Sanesha, she managed to piece together part-time childcare arrangements.

But, she says, her five-year-old son no longer has “a sense of stability and security.” And “he’s not learning anything,” the way he did when he was at a childcare center that gave him “instruction and pushed [him] to learn more.”

She worries that he won’t have the “tools” to help him “excel” when he starts grammar school — and that the months without high-quality child care “will always be a time of lost potential.”

In short, we have two major problems here: parents whose lack of reliable child care is an obstacle to getting a job and children who miss out on early learning experiences, which scads of research tell us provide lifelong benefits — both to them and our society.

The problems are obviously related because they’re both rooted in lack of money — for parents to afford high-quality child care without a subsidy and for state and local agencies to provide subsidies to all parents who need them.

Not only to provide them, but to reimburse providers at a rate that doesn’t cause them to limit the number of subsidized children they’ll accept and/or to skim on investments in quality, e.g., staff training.

To some extent, the money shortage reflects choices by state and local governments. In 2012, for example, three states cut spending on childcare assistance by more than 30%. All three — Georgia, North Dakota and South Carolina — also cut state taxes.

But the federal government is to blame as well. The Child Care and Development Block Grant, a.k.a. the Child Care and Development Fund, hasn’t kept pace with rising needs and costs.

Nor, as I’ve said over and over again, has the TANF block grant — another major federal funding source. Combining CCDBG with states’ uses of their federal TANF funds and funds they must spend to get those, childcare spending was lower in 2012 than in any year since 2002.

The multiple funding streams make it hard to put a figure on the total number of children served — and not. This much we know. The number of children served by CCDBG was the lowest since 1998 — only one in six eligible children.

That leaves more than 5.6 poor and near-poor preschoolers without child care subsidized by the largest federal source. And at least some older children with working parents need child care too.

In 2011, 13.6% of poor preschoolers whose mothers worked had no regular childcare arrangements — as of course, did some unknown percent whose mothers were actively seeking work. And this was when at least some states still had Recovery Act money for child care—and before sequestration had taken a bite out of CCDBG.

Tangela has a job now. She hopes this means she’ll get her childcare subsidy back. If she doesn’t she’ll probably still have to rely on her network of friends and relatives because center-based child care for her son would set her back somewhere around $8,600 for the year.

That’s 36.4% of the median income for Pennsylvania’s single-mother families. And its far from the costliest, whether measured in dollars or as percent of median income.

President Obama has proposed increases for CCDBG totaling $807 million, including $200 million states would have to use to support improvements in childcare quality. This would leave somewhat under $5.9 billion for subsidies.

The National Women’s Law Center says that “the additional funding would help maintain low-income families’ access to help paying for child care.”

Not, you’ll note, make subsidies available for anywhere near the number of low-income families that need them — and at reimbursement rates that would ensure access to high-quality care.

One would think that a program that supports both work and early learning could get more — or at least one would if one knew nothing at all about this Congress.


DC Budget Should Fund Help With Disability Benefits Applications

March 31, 2014

The Fair Budget Coalition recommends, among many things, a $3.9 million increase for the District of Columbia’s Interim Disability Assistance program — a temporary income supplement for low-income residents with severe disabilities.

The increase would bring local funding for IDA to somewhat over $5.9 million — a significant increase, but still less in real dollars than the program had in Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010.

It would be enough, Fair Budget says, to provide benefits — a modest $270 a month — to 1,200 more disabled residents while they wait … and wait for the Social Security Administration to render decisions on their applications for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

If they’re successful, SSA pays their benefits retroactive to the day they applied, less what they received from the IDA program. That goes to the District, making the program partly self-sustaining.

The program could probably serve more residents with less local money if a larger number could obtain SSI benefits swiftly and/or the SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits some are entitled to.

As it is, the process is complex and, more often than not, successful only after appeals — sometimes several stages thereof. This is when applicants have attorneys or other experts who know how to write, document and argue a claim.

Ms. I, for example, worked for many years cleaning offices, hospitals and nursing homes. She eventually suffered from a variety of serious ailments, plus side effects from the medications she had to take. She applied for SSI and SSDI in February 2009. Nearly two years passed before her application was approved.

But at least she got those benefits. Less than a third of SSI applications are initially approved. All but 10% ultimately are when applicants have attorneys to represent them in the appeals process, according to a pro bono attorney who spoke at an IDA briefing last fall.

But, of course, not all applicants do have attorneys. They’re hard put to gather the required proof that they’re not only income-eligible, but too disabled “to do any substantial gainful activity” for some considerable period of time.

They can easily miss one of the deadlines in the appeals process — especially, Fair Budget notes, if they’re homeless and so don’t have a mailbox to check every day.

Other applicants may also find the demands especially formidable, e.g., people unable to work because they’re developmentally disabled or suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder.

Special barriers aside, many prospectively eligible applicants decide at some point that they’ve just had enough of the time-consuming process — and the frustration.

As one who didn’t remarked at the briefing, “Either SSI is fickle or it’s set up to make people give up.” Perhaps both. Judges apply the complex regulations arbitrarily, said another of the pro bono attorneys.

A splendid example from Bread for the City, whose attorneys persuaded a judge to overturn a ruling which held that a father was demonstrably able to work because he could care for his son, with help from his family and the community.

Well, there’s nothing the District can do about the way the Social Security Administration conducts its business or the unpredictable proclivities of judges.

But they help explain why the District recovers, on average, only about 40% of the money it spends on IDA benefits — a reason Mayor Gray has taken a dim view of the program.

And they suggest that one of the items on his last wish list, i.e., funding priorities if revenues were higher than projected, should be put into the budget itself, as Fair Budget recommends.

I’m referring to funding for services to help residents apply for SSI. They’d then know, insofar as anyone can, what records they need to collect. Also, one hopes, how to describe their disabling condition(s) so as to ping the SSA checklist. They’d get help with appointments, Fair Budget suggests — and those who need it, a mailing address.

The investment should lead to more and quicker approvals, thus moving beneficiaries out of the IDA program to make way for others.

At the same time, more approvals would boost the reimbursement rate. So the District could tide over more SSI applicants without commensurate budget increases. It might, in fact, no longer have a waiting list, which undermines the whole point of interim assistance.

As things stand now, the Department of Human Services has capped IDA “customers” at 1,000 for this fiscal year. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that it will actually serve 825 — about 30% as many as it served in Fiscal Year 2009.

I need hardly add, I hope, that it would be a whole lot better for low-income residents with severe disabilities to receive SSI benefits, low as they are, than the $270 a month IDA provides. SSA might find some eligible for SSDI, which could be even better for them.

Fair Budget recommends $580,000 for SSI application assistance — about 60% of what the Mayor put on his wish list. The ask seems to me very small. But at least it would get the program started — without, one hopes, compromises in quality.

If it proves effective, as a particular model for homeless people has, then the District will have home-grown results justifying an increase.


More to Bad Jobs Than Low Hourly Pay

March 24, 2014

New York Times columnist Steven Greenhouse profiles a nurse’s aide and several other low-wage workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee to show why low-wage workers generally are “finding poverty harder to escape.”

One reason is simple enough. Their hourly pay rates are too low. All the profiled workers get somewhat more than the federal minimum, which applies in Tennessee and 28 other states — not, however, as much as the proposed $10.10 an hour. So the increase would help.

But low pay rates alone don’t account for the troubles the workers have paying for basic expenses. The nurse’s aide, for example, like a growing number of low-wage workers across the country, doesn’t have a regular work schedule, let alone a full-time job.

“For today’s low-wage, hourly workers, … scarce, unstable and unpredictable hours are the new norm,” write Professors Charlotte Alexander and Anna Haley-Lock.

Employers aren’t only cutting back on full-time jobs. Those that can are, in many cases, relying on “just-in-time” scheduling, i.e., adding and subtracting workers’ hours according to immediate need.

It’s reportedly common in restaurants and other retail businesses, which can now establish very short shifts — 15 minutes, in some cases — and use software to fill them, based on customer traffic, sales or predictors like weather conditions.

Workers may show up for what they think is a five-hour shift and be sent home early. They may be told they’ll need to put in extra hours — or to be available for them, with no guarantee they’ll be working.

They may have no regular hours at all, but instead have to call in daily — or be constantly accessible by phone. More commonly, their work days and/or hours change from week to week. And they don’t know what their schedule will be until a day or so before they’ve got to meet it.

“Even then,” said one chain restaurant worker, “it was only a guesstimate.”

Likewise, of course, the budget planning that low-income people are enjoined to practice. “I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week and as many as forty,” says a New York City sales associate. “How is anyone … supposed to plan a budget with such erratic schedules?”

And how is a parent supposed to manage childcare arrangements, when she’s sometimes needed, sometimes not, sometimes for far longer than scheduled — or at altogether different hours?

And how will she afford child care when a center may tack on a hefty fee for late pick-ups — or when her hours are suddenly, though perhaps (or perhaps not) temporarily cut in half?

Iffy schedules pose other problems for low-wage workers. For example, they can’t take on a second part-time job because they can’t commit to any work schedule, even if not another “just-in-time.”

They often can’t try to improve their prospects by getting more education or specialized training because they never know when or how often their work schedule will conflict with their classes.

The surges and plunges in working hours also wreak havoc on eligibility for many public benefits and the support they provide because recipients generally have to recertify, i.e., periodically reapply.

A woman in Massachusetts says, “A good month, I can work thirty-eight to forty-five hours and it just happens to be that month they want my pay stubs for food stamps. OK, the next month comes around I’ve worked three hours one week, twelve hours another week … They don’t want my pay stubs for that month.”

So she could lose at least part of her food stamp benefit — and then have to try to recover it. Temporary hours spikes can also jeopardize childcare subsidies, WIC, housing assistance and Medicaid.

On the other hand, earnings plunges make it even more difficult for low-wage workers to qualify for unemployment benefits. Yet they’re at high risk for unemployment — in part because they’re expected to work whenever.

Finally, as many have written, the on-again, off-again, never-know-when schedules create high levels of stress for workers. They’re also harmfully stressful for their children, whose daily routines and caregivers constantly change.

CLASP and partners have identified two policies that some employers have adopted to mitigate the problems of unstable schedules for low-wage workers.

One, also favored by Professors Alexander and Haley-Lock, guarantees workers who’ve reported when told to a certain number of hours of pay.

Seven states and the District of Columbia actually have so-called “reporting pay” laws, but they vary considerable in whom they cover, the number of hours guaranteed and the required pay rate.

These laws may be on the books, but it’s doubtful they’re consistently enforced, since they hinge on vulnerable workers filing complaints. And, of course, they do nothing about schedules that constantly change.

Nor does the other policy, though it comes closer. It guarantees workers a set number of hours a week — or pay for those hours if there’s not enough work for them to do. Costco, among others (probably not very many), has a version of this policy.

There’s a business case to be made for a work guarantee. It can help reduce turnover, for example, and increase productivity — not only because workers know their jobs, but because they want to do them well.

But, as the CLASP report says, “relying solely on voluntary employer action will not suffice.” We’ll need new and/or revised laws and regulations to make bad jobs better in the rapidly-growing low-wage service sectors.


EITC Reforms Would Give Childless Workers a Fair Shake

February 27, 2014

As the tax filing season opens, the Internal Revenue Service, local government agencies and nonprofits across the country have launched their annual campaign to inform potentially eligible workers about the Earned Income Tax Credit and to help them claim it.

IRS estimated that about 21% didn’t in 2010. Roughly 26% didn’t here in the District of Columbia — a higher percent than in all but five states.

The District workers missed out not only on the federal credit, but on the credit the District provides in its own tax code. Twenty-five states have their own EITC as well, though one of them — North Carolina — won’t after this filing year.

Notwithstanding the missing claimants, the EITC is one of the most powerful anti-poverty programs we have — second only to Social Security. Last year, it lifted 6.5 million people, including 3.3 million children above the poverty threshold.

This is partly because it’s a refundable credit. In other words, if claiming it reduces what filers owe to less than zero, IRS pays them the negative balance. The EITC is also refundable in all but four states that have one.

The EITC enjoys broad support across the political spectrum — something you can hardly say for most other programs that only people below a certain income level qualify for. This is because it’s available only to people who’ve earned income by working — and thus widely viewed as a work incentive.

A substantial body of research indicates that it actually is — or at any rate, has been, since much of the work has focused on single-mother employment in the late 1990s, shortly after welfare “reform” and several expansions of the EITC.

Yet, as I’ve written before, the EITC shortchanges childless workers. Those under 25 aren’t eligible for the credit at all. For those who are older, the credit is very small — just 7.65% of earned income to a maximum of $496 for this tax year.

And there will be no more credit available for a single childless workers when earnings reach $14,590 — less than what a full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage pays. Hardly better for childless married couples.

These restrictions doubly disadvantage childless workers in the District and most of the EITC states because their tax credits are pegged to the federal. In other words, workers are eligible for a fixed percent of their federal EITC benefit.

Here in the District, it’s 40%. So the maximum childless workers can to receive this year is $195 — a partial explanation perhaps for those missing claimants.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that some prominent conservatives have recently recommended reforms to make the EITC a more effective support for childless workers — mainly as a substitute for raising the minimum wage.

Such reforms are nevertheless one anti-poverty measure that might bring conservatives and progressives together, CBPP cautiously suggests.

Caution is certainly called for here — and not only because conservatives are pumping the EITC as a way of dumping on the long-overdue federal minimum wage increase.

We’ve got EITC reform bills in Congress right now that would drop the eligibility age to 21, double the maximum credit for childless workers, boost the rate at which their earnings rise to the maximum and extend the phase-out.

No Republican cosponsors. One reason may be that expanding the EITC will result in more and larger refunds. As Politico notes, they’re counted as federal spending — something we’d hardly expect Republicans to support more of (except for defense).

Thus, for example, Presidential-hopeful Marco Rubio’s anti-poverty plan would replace the EITC with a wage subsidy that would benefit childless workers and families with children equally. But, says his spokesperson, the proposal will be revenue neutral. So it will take from one needy group to give to another.

If President Obama really thinks that he and Rubio can work together to strengthen the EITC for single childless workers, as his State of the Union address suggested, he’s probably in for another disappointment.

And clearly disappointment from lead House Republicans, who swiftly found reasons to oppose the as-yet unseen EITC expansion in his Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

As with the minimum wage, the District may just forge ahead rather than wait for Congress to do what it seems unlikely to do in the near future.

The DC Tax Revision Commission has recommended changes that would make the District’s EITC significantly more beneficial to childless workers. They would:

  • Raise the maximum credit to 100% of the federal credit.
  • Extend the availability of the maximum credit to $17,235 of adjusted gross income for both single and married childless workers.
  • Fully phase out when AGI reaches $22,980.

The EITC is often referred to as a measure that makes work pay. The Commission’s proposal would certainly make work pay more for childless workers at the low end of the income scale.

A good step, though not the only one to make the District’s tax code more progressive. And it might reduce the poverty rate too.


Why Are Most Poor Families Disconnected From TANF?

February 17, 2014

We’ve had briefs, policy proposals and programs for disconnected youth. We’ve had research on disconnected low-income men. And now we have new research on an overlapping group — disconnected families. They’re the subject of a recent Child Trends post, which previews a forthcoming brief.

Disconnected families, as Child Trends defines them, are families with children that lived at or below the federal poverty line last year and included no adult who worked more than 50 weeks or received cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Yet when we look at the findings, we see the families aren’t all that disconnected. The parents aren’t necessarily disconnected from the labor force, though, by definition, they don’t have long-term jobs.

More than 90% of the children in the families were enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. More than 75% received free school meals. And a slightly lower percent of the families received SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

So there are relatively few poor families with children that are altogether disconnected from major safety net programs.

Some who are might be disconnected because of their immigration status. Federal law denies major safety net benefits to undocumented immigrants, except for free and reduced-price school meals, WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and emergency Medicaid.

It also generally bars families who’ve lived in the country legally for less than five years, though there’s a child-only exception for SNAP and, if states choose, for CHIP and Medicaid for pregnant women and children.

What all the families are disconnected from is TANF — and not, in most cases, because of the restrictions on immigrant eligibility. It’s largely because of the ways states have used their much-touted flexibility to restrict participation.

One is the extraordinarily low income ceilings that states have established for income eligibility. The rules are complex and various.

But to give you an example, the earned income maximum for a family of three is below 50% of the federal poverty line in 28 states and the District of Columbia. In 2012, it was a mere $269 a month in Alabama and only $10 more in Arkansas.

Another major restriction is the time limit during which a family may receive TANF benefits. Most states and the District use a 60-month lifetime limit because federal law sets this limit on their use of block grant funds to pay benefits, except when only children receive them.

States may exempt up to 20% of families from this time limit. Only about half do, however. And 11 states set shorter time limits — only 24 months in four.

Families may also become disconnected from TANF before their time limit expires. Some are “sanctioned off,” i.e., denied all benefits, because the parents failed to comply with the work activity plans developed for them or with other requirements their caseworkers impose.

At least, they’ve allegedly failed. As Legal Momentum has persuasively shown, some TANF agencies hand out sanctions very enthusiastically — and often when the parent has done nothing she should be punished for.

Now, I don’t want to let any state off the hook here — or the District either, for that matter. But our federal government provides incentives for keeping families out of TANF and disconnecting those in it.

One is increasingly inadequate funding. The block grant that constitutes most of what states and the District receive is the same in nominal dollars as when TANF was created — and thus worth nearly a third less.

So states would have to plow more and more of their own funds into their programs just to sustain what they’d established.

Another incentive is the credit states can get for reducing their caseloads. This protects them from penalties for failing to have enough parents engaged for enough hours in authorized work activities.

Still another is that they can use both their block grant funds and the funds they must spend to receive them — their so-called Maintenance of Effort — on a wide variety of programs.

These needn’t be exclusively for TANF families — or even families in poverty. Some clearly aren’t, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported. They include, for example, child welfare services and refunds from the states’ Earned Income Tax Credit.

The less states spend on cash benefits and work-related activities, e.g., education, training, job support services, the more they can spend on things that command more political support than welfare.

So it’s hardly surprising that roughly 75% of poor families are disconnected from TANF. Or that children raised in these families are far more likely than their better-off peers to join the ranks of disconnected youth.


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