No Help for Homeless DC Family, But Mayor Shortchanges Shelter Funding

April 9, 2012

I met a homeless family the other day. The mother was, to all appearances, six months pregnant. The father was tending to their toddler.

They had no place to stay and no money for food. And the Family Resources Center — the District’s central intake for homeless families — couldn’t help them.

The mother told me that they’d been advised to find some place to stay — as if they’d have asked for shelter if they had one.

They’d returned to the Center in hopes of a gift card so they could buy some food, but it had run out of cards. I was told the cards were donated by corporations like Safeway and Giant, and the chains hadn’t come through of late.

The family could, however, get a Metro fare card. I asked the father what they’d do with it. He said he guessed they’d go back to their former neighborhood and see if someone would take them in. Not likely, he seemed to think.

So here’s a family that’s destitute. A little kid and an unborn child at high risk of long-term health and developmental damages due to hunger.

Perhaps for the toddler also psychological damage if he understands what it means that they’re spending nights in bus stations or hospital waiting rooms — even, as seems likely, if he picks up on the fear and stress his parents are feeling.

Who knows how many more stories like this there are — and how many more there’ll be in months to come?

All because the District government couldn’t find enough money to fund its homeless program in light of projected needs.

A 46% increase in family homelessness since 2008. A report indicating extraordinary vulnerability to increased homelessness.

And a budget for this fiscal year that provides not a penny more for homeless services — actually $3 million less than what the Department of Human Services was spending.

So DHS has again stopped providing shelter for newly homeless families. Official end of the winter season means they’ll be on their own — perhaps till the next freezing-cold day.

And now Mayor Gray has proposed a budget that would effectively cut homeless services by $7 million. These are “lost,” i.e., spent, federal funds that he could have replaced with local dollars.

No doubt the budget must address many priorities. But I fail to see how letting homeless families fend for themselves squares with budget development principles that include “protect the District’s most vulnerable residents.”

Also fail to see why all tax and fee increases must be off the table if the alternative is cuts that undermine other principles.

The Mayor tells us that to “seize our future,” we must “improve the quality of life for all.”

My quality of life wouldn’t be impaired by paying, say, a sales tax on services that aren’t covered now — or for that matter, income taxes at a higher rate.

It is impaired by helpless worrying about the literally help-less family I met. Their quality of life goes without saying.


How to Narrow the DC Income Gap: Some First Steps

March 29, 2012

As I recently wrote, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has issued an eye-opening report on income inequality in the District of Columbia.

It’s got some recommendations for narrowing the income gap between the richest and the poorest. No revolutionary attack on “the system” that’s enriching the top 1% at the expense of the rest of us.

Instead some modest, politically-feasible our steps our local government could take right now to lift the incomes of some portion of the bottom 20% — now, on average, well below the poverty line.

With two limited exceptions, the recommendations address policies and programs already in place. As so often in the District, it’s the funding that’s wanting — and for the most part, will be wanting if the DC Council approves what Mayor Gray has proposed.

Bigger budgets for the initiatives would help achieve three objectives.

Help Residents Prepare for Living Wage Jobs

One initiative DCFPI cites is the recently-established workforce intermediary pilot. When/if implemented, the intermediary would get training programs better tailored to local workforce needs and then refer qualified candidates to employers.

Mayor Gray’s Fiscal Year 2013 proposes $1.6 million to “fully fund the creation of the pilot.” Unclear, at least to me, whether this means we’d have an ongoing, fully functional intermediary.

The second initiative is the unfolding redesign of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Participants are to get in-depth assessments of their strengths and needs, then be linked to appropriate services and a broader range of work-preparation opportunities than was previously available.

The problem here, as I (and others) have mentioned before, is that the current law calls for a phase-out of cash benefits for long-term participants who’ve had no opportunity to benefit from the improvements. It also fails to carve out needed exemptions, as federal rules allow.

Unfair and very unwise, given all we know about the lifelong disadvantages children suffer when they grow up in poverty.

Address Housing Concerns

The “concerns” here are budget cuts to the District’s main affordable housing programs.

One — the Housing Production Trust Fund — was all but gutted last year, stalling numerous projects to develop and preserve housing that low and moderate-income residents could afford.

The other — the Local Rent Supplement Program — provides housing vouchers residents can use to rent apartments on the open market.

It would need regular budget increases just to keep pace with rising rents. It hasn’t gotten them and now reportedly has a shortfall that could leave more than 500 households with no more rental assistance.

The Mayor’s proposed budget addresses the shortfall — by once again raiding the Trust Fund. Says he’ll put the money back if revenues come in substantially higher than projected. Well, he agreed to something similar last year. And the Trust Fund got zip.

Make Work Pay Better

DCFPI focuses on the District’s living wage law, which establishes a higher minimum wage requirement for employers that benefit from District government contracts and/or various types of financial assistance worth $100,000 or more.

The law, DCFPI says, needs to be more strictly enforced, suggesting that the District has finally gotten around to enforcing it at all. DCFPI also recommends expanding the law. No details here.

Other Work-Related Needs

The DCFPI recommendations are, as I said, very modest. And with the exception of affordable housing funding, they’d help only those in the bottom fifth who work or potentially could work if properly trained.

Even for this group, the District could — and should — do more. But the Mayor doesn’t see it that way.

For example, as the Fair Budget Coalition notes, child care programs have been cut by more than $20 million in the last five years. The Mayor’s proposed budget cuts an additional $5.7 million from child care subsidies.

Without funding to increase provider reimbursement rates, low-income parents with little kids may have no choice but to stay home.

Funding for basic adult education has also been cut. Two years ago, programs funded in part by local taxpayer dollars served only 8% of need — this when more than one in three  D.C. adults is functionally illiterate.

How many aren’t working because they can’t read even well enough to fill out a job application? How many are stuck in part-time, minimum wage jobs because they can’t pass the GED exams?

How many more will be stuck if the Council approves the Mayor’s proposed $950,000 cut for adults and family education?


Fair Budget Coalition to Host Its Own One City Summit, Says DC in Crisis

March 10, 2012

Monday morning, March 12, the Fair Budget Coalition will host its own One City Summit. One City (In Crisis) they call it.

No Convention Center space for this one. No slick participants’ guides. No digital keypads to vote on preferences. FBC doesn’t have half a million to blow on such things.

What it does have are some pretty alarming figures to justify its claim that the District is in crisis. For example:

  • One out of every three D.C. children is living in poverty.
  • One out of every five residents is on the waiting list for public housing or a voucher to help pay the rent.
  • One out of every ten residents is unemployed — and that’s just those who are actively looking for work.

The crisis doesn’t directly affect high-income residents, of course. Councilmember Jack Evans’s Georgetown constituents, for example, aren’t likely to be on that waiting list for subsidized housing.

It does, however, affect all of us who want to live in a city that’s not so radically divided between the haves and the have-nots. And all of us who want a secure, sustaining safety net for the latter.

Prospects for that don’t look so good — hence the FBC Summit.

At a recent briefing, Eric Goulet, Mayor Gray’s budget director, explained to us why the District couldn’t tap its reserve fund accounts — even the excess revenue surplus the Mayor chose to put there.

Also why the District couldn’t possibly cut funding for education or public safety.

And why it couldn’t, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute suggested, borrow for some capital projects, at current very low interest rates, rather than immediately pay for them out of operating revenues.

Capped all this by saying that the Mayor wouldn’t propose any significant revenue raisers to help close the budget gap — now reportedly $115 million. Last year’s flap over the modest income tax increase for high earners was enough for him.

So notwithstanding the usual claim that everything’s on the table, it seems that the only big thing left there is spending for human services programs.

These and other programs for low-income residents have been hit hard by successive budget-balancing feats.

Cuts to them last year accounted for 61% of the total — even after the DC Council restored about $23 million. Chalk this up, in large part, to the raid on affordable housing.

Taking the programs off the table would restore some balance to the budget, but still leave them far short of the resources they need.

We’re told that the DC Housing Authority needs an additional $6 million just to pay its share of the rent for people who have locally-funded housing vouchers.

Homeless services is running up hotel bills — and running through its budget — because it doesn’t have shelter space or other housing for nearly all the families who’ve become homeless.

This isn’t a shelter problem, Department of Human Services Director David Berns rightly says. It’s “inadequate affordable housing.” Closing the gap in the Local Rent Supplement Program won’t do a thing about this, though it could keep some now-housed families from becoming homeless.

The Mayor apparently wants to go at the housing problem from “the demand side,” i.e., to get more people into good-paying jobs so they can afford to pay market-rate rents. Well, that’s going to require some additional spending too.

The Fair Budget Coalition flags the need to increase funding for adult education and literacy programs — an obvious priority given the high functional illiteracy rate and the demands of our local job market.

Also advocates more money for child care subsidies so that parents who find jobs can go to work — and, I’d add, to pay for rent, food, clothing and other basic needs. Hard for low-income parents without subsidies to do when child care costs in the District can eat up two-thirds of full-time minimum wage.

The District’s redesigned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would fit in well with the demand-side focus — if DHS has the funds to do what it plans.

DCFPI rather doubts it does.

And, as the Institute notes, parents who’ve had no opportunity to benefit from the improvements will nevertheless lose more and more of the meager cash assistance that’s keeping some, though not all of them from homelessness.

Well, I could go on this way, but I think the point is clear. A Fiscal Year 2013 budget that’s balanced by spending cuts alone will not only cause greater hardships. It will undermine what the Mayor himself says he wants to achieve.

He couldn’t learn this at his One City Summit. Maybe FBC’s will get the message through.


HUD Budget Shifts Rent Costs to Low-Income Elderly and Disabled

March 9, 2012

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan admits that his department’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget includes “some very difficult choices we would not have made in a better fiscal environment.”

“Tough choices,” he continues, “include reforms to HUD rental assistance programs that save over $500 million in 2013 without reducing the number of families served.”

One of those reforms, as I earlier wrote, would require the very poorest of these families to pay a $75 per month minimum rent — unless they could get one of the rarely-granted hardship exemptions.

Another would change part of the complex formula used to calculate the income that’s used to set the 30% the rest pay.

A bit of background first.

The amount households must contribute to their rent is based on their adjusted income, not the total amount they receive in wages, cash benefits and the like.

Part of the formula excludes — or partly excludes — certain types of income. The other part consists of deductions.

Two related deductions address certain out-of-pocket costs that households with elderly and/or disabled members incur for medical care, attendant care and “auxiliary apparatus,” e.g., a wheelchair, a hearing aid.

The latter two are deductible only if they’re necessary for some member of the household — not necessarily the person with the disability — to work.

At this point, the expenses are deductible if they exceed 3% of the household’s income, after exclusions and the standard deduction the families receive if the elderly or disabled member is the head of the household or married to him/her.

The proposed HUD budget would raise the threshold to 10% of income.

This, of course, would increase the amount that many families with elderly and disabled members must contribute to their rent.

The more they pay, the less the public housing authority pays. The less the PHA pays, the less it costs HUD to renew rental assistance contracts. Also, the budget indicates, the less it will have to pay to subsidize public housing operating costs.

Voila! Estimated savings of $200 million* in the upcoming fiscal year — all shifted to vulnerable low-income families.

The 10% deduction threshold isn’t a new idea. As with the minimum rent proposal, HUD borrowed it from a housing assistance reform bill that’s been evolving in Congress for at least five years.

The bill seeks, among other things, to simplify the rules of setting tenant rent payments. As part of that, it raises the deduction threshold for the same types of costs the HUD budget would.

But the successive versions of the bill also raise the standard deduction for the households headed by seniors or people with disabilities. And they index it to inflation.

This would at least partly offset the impact on rent from the hike in the threshold for out-of-pocket deductions.

The proposed HUD budget would leave the standard deduction just where it is — $400 per month. No relief for households that will get stuck with higher rent because their medical co-pays, attendant fees and the like didn’t consume a full tenth of their income.

So HUD’s tough choice will mean tough choices for around 650,000 very low-income families — rent versus prescription renewals, for example.

I’m hard put to believe they’re necessary — fiscal environment notwithstanding.

If the President could find more than $525 billion for the Pentagon, surely some $350 million could have been found to sustain the low-income housing assistance programs without the punitive policy changes the HUD budget would make.

* HUD’s budget justification to Congress accounts only for savings in the Housing Choice voucher program, but clearly indicates that the higher deduction threshold would also apply to public housing and Section 8 project-based housing residents. The estimate I’m citing here comes from a Congressional Budget Office analysis of one version of the reform bill I refer to below.


Food Hardship Rate Rises Nationwide, Drops in DC

March 6, 2012

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center delivers some bad news for the nation as a whole and some moderately good news for the District of Columbia.

Food Hardship Nationwide

Nationwide, the food hardship rate increased somewhat in 2011, hitting 18.6% of households surveyed. This means that nearly one in five at some point during the year didn’t have enough money to buy the food the family needed.

The annual rate masks the extent of the upward trend. The food hardship rate during the first quarter of the year was 17.9%. By the fourth quarter, it had risen to 19.4%.

Ongoing high unemployment and underemployment rates account for part of the increase, FRAC says. But rising food prices and the freeze in food stamp benefit increases were also factors.

Costs of the items in the Thrifty Food Plan  market baskets rose 6.2% during 2011. That would ordinarily lead to an increase in food stamp benefits.

But when the Recovery Act boosted the benefits, it also suspended the annual food cost adjustments. Food stamps thus lost 6.2% of their purchasing power last year, though they were still worth more than they would have been without the boost.

Food Hardship in the District

Here in the District, the food hardship rate dropped from 18.9% in 2010 to 16.5% in 2011.

Last year, the District was right in the middle of FRAC’s state rankings. Now it’s slightly below the middle. Twenty-seven states had higher food hardship rates. In 17 of them, rates were at or above 20%.

As I’ve remarked before, the state ranking is, for the District, something of an apples to oranges comparison, since the District is only a city, notwithstanding its various state-like functions.

Fortunately, FRAC also provides food hardship rates for Congressional districts — these reflecting two-year averages to compensate for relatively small survey samples.

Here the District is again somewhat below the median, with a ranking of 295, based on a two-year average of 15.8%.

Nothing to stand up and cheer about. But a whole lot better than the 33.3% in the top-ranking district, which (in gerrymandered fashion) embraces the northern and eastern parts of Houston.

Policy Implications

So what’s the takeaway? Nothing new, but nonetheless important.

It’s crucial, FRAC says, to grow the economy in a way that provides full-time jobs at decent wages. At the same time, we need to strengthen income supports, e.g., unemployment insurance, low-income tax credits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Federal nutrition programs must be strengthened as well so that they reach more households in need and “with more robust benefits.”

For the long term, the latter would involve changing the basis for calculating food stamp benefits — a FRAC recommendation I’ve been harping on for some time.

More immediately, however, Congress has a Fiscal Year 2013 budget to pass.

The President has again recommended that it restore the months it shaved off the boost to help pay for the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

Also (again) that it temporarily suspend the time limit that now jeopardizes food stamp benefits for many poor able-bodied adults without dependents.

He proposes modest increases for some key child nutrition programs, including WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

He’s also proposing a bit more for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) — perhaps enough to sustain, at the current level, the stream  food products that flow to our country’s severely stressed pantries and soup kitchens.

But, as FRAC tactfully observes, “some in Congress” are proposing reductions in federal nutrition programs.

We’re told to expect a House budget plan much like last year’s. That would mean, among other things, a food stamp block grant structured to cut federal spending for the program by some $127 billion over the first ten years.

Some other programs — WIC and TEFAP, for example — would be slated for cuts. They’re doubly vulnerable, since they’re not protected from the across-the-board cuts that will kick in next January.

No doubt we’ve got to grapple with the projected long-term deficit. And the short-term prospects for tax revenues are fair to middlin’.

But “even in difficult times,” FRAC says, “we have the resources to eliminate hunger for everyone.” We could, in fact, gain at least $167.5 billion a year if we did.

Knowing this, the new food hardship figures should prompt second thoughts by our decision-makers — even those safety-net-slashing “some in Congress.”


What Would HUD’s Proposed Minimum Rent Mandate Mean for Extremely Poor DC Residents?

March 1, 2012

Researching the impacts of the mandatory minimum rent proposal in the President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget, I asked myself what it would mean for extremely low-income District residents who benefit from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rental housing programs.

The answer, I think, is maybe less than for the poorest beneficiaries in most of the country. But it’s hard to be sure because we don’t know how broadly HUD would apply the new policy.

Here’s what we do know.

DCHA (the District’s public housing authority) doesn’t impose a minimum rent, as it could under the current law. It’s chosen — wisely I think — to let the lowest of low-income households conserve their cash for other needs.

These, recall, are households whose adjusted incomes are so low that the usual 30% they’d owe for rent is negligible, except to them.

In one scenario, they’d have to pay $75 a month, as would more than half a million of the poorest households nationwide, though DCHA could grant hardship exemptions for some of them.

But DCHA is one of the 34 public housing authorities that participate in HUD’s Moving to Work demonstration project. As such, it’s exempt from many of the rules most PHAs must comply with.

So it’s possible that DCHA could preserve its current rent policy for most residents who’d otherwise be affected.

According to DCHA’s latest annual report, 12,752 individuals and families had Housing Choice vouchers in its MTW program. It plans to increase the number to 12,784 by the end of this fiscal year.

DCHA says that close to 20,000 additional residents live in public housing units.

If the proposed policy change is like the one in a bill the House is considering — and it does seem that way — then the minimum mandatory rent wouldn’t automatically apply to either the voucher holders or the public housing residents.

Or so I gather from a bill analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But the minimum mandatory would apply to residents of project-based Section 8 housing, i.e., units that have federally-funded vouchers attached to them.

That, says CBPP, would put 1,273 extremely low-income District households at risk of “serious hardship and even homelessness.”

Do we really need anything more to push up our homelessness rates?


Childless Adults Face Food Stamp Cut-Off

February 27, 2012

Some years ago, I was fired from a job I’d had for a long time. I was told my position had been restructured out of existence. But it sure felt like firing to me.

This was during a recession. And as time went on — and hopes dwindled — I got to thinking about what would happen if I never found work again.

I realized that I couldn’t rely on any of the major public benefits programs because I was a relatively young, able-bodied adult with no children.

If I’d sunk into poverty earlier, I could have gotten food stamps — though hardly at a level that would have enabled me to eat three squares a day.

But Congress had decided that people like me had to earn their food stamps by demonstrating personal responsibility — this as part of the same law that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As with the TANF, “personal responsibility” means, among other things, working or preparing for work.

So under ordinary circumstances, most of us able-bodied adults without dependents can get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period unless we’re working at least 20 hours a week or engaged, for the same amount of time, in a job training or workfare program, i.e., unpaid public service.

The Recovery Act suspended this time limit through September 2010. President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget would have reinstated the suspension.

But the proposal went nowhere. Hardly surprising when House Republicans had decided that the food stamp program was growing out of all compass and should be converted to a block grant like TANF.

For the most part, however, ABAWDs have been okay because the law allows states to get a waiver from the time limit for those who live in areas where the unemployment rate is over 10% or there are “insufficient jobs.”

I’ve tried to figure out whether this long-standing policy will provide a reasonable substitute for a reinstatement of the Recovery Act suspension. Very difficult because most of the available data are for states as a whole, not areas within states.

This much seems clear. Very few, if any agencies will be able to claim a statewide waiver in Fiscal Year 2013.

As of December, unemployment rates were higher than 10% in only four states and the District of Columbia. Seems likely that fewer states will qualify on this basis when the new fiscal year begins.

Which leaves the “insufficient jobs” option. Memos from the federal Food Nutrition Service indicate that it’s been using the trigger criteria for the Extended Benefits portion of unemployment insurance to decide whether states qualify for a year-long statewide waiver.

As I wrote awhile ago, states “trigger off” EB when their average unemployment rate for the current three-month period is no longer at least 6.5% higher than during the comparable period in a recent prior year.

So more states will fall off the trigger list as time goes on, even though their unemployment rates are well above normal.

This doesn’t mean states won’t be able to claim waivers. But it seems they’ll have to revert to the much more restrictive Department of Labor “surplus area” lists — generally local jurisdictions where the unemployment rate is 20% higher than the national rate.

Perhaps in ordinary times it makes sense to say that able-bodied adults who need food stamp benefits should work or prepare for work if they can. Whether they should be coerced into working for no pay is a separate issue.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

There are still nearly four times as many people looking for work as jobs available.

Job re-training programs are reportedly stressed to the max. And it seems reasonable to suppose that a fair number of the longer-term jobless ABAWDs have already completed one anyway. Doubtful they could get into another that would carry them through till they found work.

So the end of the current ABAWD waivers will almost surely mean that more low-income people go hungry. Seems unfair to punish them because jobs are scarce and they’ve no one but themselves to support.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget again proposes a time-limit suspension. I’d like to think it will pass this time, but that’s more hope for change than I can muster.


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