DC Budget Should Fund Help With Disability Benefits Applications

March 31, 2014

TheĀ 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 jeopardizeĀ 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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