DC Interim Disability Assistance Funds Go Missing

March 22, 2011

Funding for programs operated by the DC Department of Human Services has been something of a shell game.

In October 2009, we learned — months after the budget was passed — that funds in the federal block grant for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program wouldn’t be used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation, as they had been in the past. About $12 million had silently been allocated to other priorities.

Then $8.4 million of the funding DHS received from the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund was shifted to cover a cost overrun in last year’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

Now we learn that funds to sustain the Interim Disabilities Assistance program have been used to fill budget gaps somewhere else.

The funds shifted this time came from the Social Security Administration as partial reimbursement for the local funds IDA had spent to tide disabled District residents over while their applications for Supplemental Security Income were pending.

IDA is one of those relatively small programs that makes a big difference in the lives of low-income residents who are too severely disabled to work — thus potentially eligible for SSI.

The process of getting an SSI claim approved is notoriously lengthy — often several years, due to frequent needs to appeal. So, as its name suggests, IDA provides temporary assistance.

The maximum stipend is $270 per month — hardly enough to live on. But as Stacy Braverman at Bread for the City testified last year, it can help recipients cover essential expenses that actually save the District money, e.g., co-pays for prescription drugs, rent.

SSA reimburses the District for benefits it provides to claimants who are ultimately successful. IDA thus recovers about 40% of the local funds spent. Plowed back into the program, the recovered funds have been used to provide stipends for people on the waiting list.

Because, ironically, there’s a waiting list at IDA for people who are already, in a manner of speaking, on the waiting list for SSI. Has been since Fiscal Year 2008, when the DC Council used the program’s unspent carryover funds to help close a budget gap.

From that time forward, IDA has been subject to a series of cuts.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s budget brief shows, the total budget originally approved for this fiscal year was $6 million less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the original Fiscal Year 2010 total. Totals here include the on-hand and projected SSA reimbursements, as well as the approved local funding.

The Fiscal Year 2010 gap-closing measure took away $2.8 million. The latest gap-closer, passed in December, took another $1.2 million.

This left the program with just $3.2 million and a waiting list of more than 500 residents too disabled to work and ineligible for TANF — the District’s other major source of cash assistance for poor adults.

Enrollment has been capped at 1,500 residents — this based on the assumption that all the SSA reimbursement funds would be available.

Now we hear that no one on the waiting list will get benefits until the caseload shrinks to 600. That could be a very long time — long enough to make the temporary lifeline IDA is supposed to provide meaningless.

So it seems to me that Mayor Gray should do a couple of things.

One is to make the IDA program whole and propose enough Fiscal Year 2012 local funding to eliminate the need for a waiting list.

Deliberately delaying benefits for people who are waiting for benefits subverts the purpose of the program and creates greater cost pressures elsewhere, e.g. in homeless services, emergency room costs.

It also creates a vicious circle because the fewer people who receive benefits, the less the District gets back from SSA, which means that even fewer people receive benefits, the District gets even less back, etc.

I’m told that IDA would need a local funding increase about as big as its total original Fiscal Year 2011 allocation, SSA funds included, just to support a caseload up to the official cap. The cap itself is one of the main reasons why.

The second thing I hope the mayor will do is declare — and enforce — a much higher level of transparency. Backroom fund shifts that come to light only after the fact — and only because the advocacy community is monitoring — is no way to run a government.

UPDATE: A new posting on DCFPI’s blog, The District’s Dime, recaps what’s at risk if IDA funding isn’t restored. It features a short video of three D.C. residents, who speak of their own situations and what the program has meant to them.

Take a look and then, as the video urges, “preserve human dignity” by contacting Mayor Gray at eom@dc.gov and his budget director Eric Goulet at eric.goulet@dc.gov.


Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

November 15, 2009

Surely the vast majority of poor parents do the best they can for their children. Still, a disproportionate number of them wind up losing their children to child welfare agencies.

One reason seems to be that more child abuse and neglect actually occur in poor families. According to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in families with incomes below $15,000 a year were 14 times more likely to be harmed by some form of abuse and 44 times more likely to be endangered by physical neglect than children in families with annual incomes of at least $30,000.

Data like these have led the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to call the view that child mistreatment cuts across class lines a myth. After all, it says, child abuse is linked to stress, and poor families tend to be under more stress than rich families.

But, as NCCPR goes on to argue, many child protection laws virtually define poverty as neglect. In Illinois, for example, it’s failure to provide “care necessary for [a child's] well-being.” Here in the District of Columbia, negligent treatment is “failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”

The D.C. law goes on to make an exemption for deprivation due to lack of financial means. But there are reasons to believe this is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Consider, for example, that 34 children were put into foster care last year because of “inadequate housing.”

Perhaps other reasons were linked to poverty as well. More than half the 2008 foster care placements the Child and Family Services Agency reports were because of “neglect (reported/alleged).” There’s a lot of room here for judgments based on how well children fare when their families are poor.

Now we all know what happens when child welfare agencies leave children in homes where they shouldn’t be. But there’s also a lot of evidence that children are taken away from their parents when other options would be better for them.

What if the parents who lost their children due to “inadequate housing” had received housing vouchers or other assistance to improve their living conditions? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that a number of studies indicate that children are seriously damaged by foster care placements. For example, a large study of young adults who’d been in foster care found that they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans. A third of them reported some form of maltreatment by an adult in the foster care home. Only 20% of them could be said to be “doing well.”

And then there are the horrible cases of children who died from abuse or neglect in foster care homes.

So when we see an exponential increase in foster care placements, as we have in D.C., we shouldn’t conclude that the child welfare system is working. We should try to find out more about the cases. Were the children being abused or willfully neglected? Or was the “neglect (reported/alleged)” something that could have been readily addressed by safety net programs or other services?

Or do a fair number of the placements reflect misjudgments on the part of the caseworkers? Professor Matthew Fraidin at the University of the District of Columbia Law School recently testified that 60% of the cases handled by his students resulted in the children’s being returned to their homes because, when confronted, CFSA agreed they weren’t being abused or neglected.

Was any racial prejudice involved? According to the latest CFSA assessment by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as of January 2009, 98% of the children in out-of-home placements whose race was known were black. That’s about a third more than the percent of D.C. children who are black. Seems like an awfully big point spread to me. And here again we’ve got studies that make the question worth asking.

Unfortunately, neither we nor interested experts can get a good fix on whether children are being taken away from their parents because of their poverty and/or race. Here in D.C., as in most states, child welfare proceedings and records are closed to everyone not directly involved in the case.

What would happen if we let some sunshine in?

NOTE: I’m deeply indebted to Professor Fraidin for calling my attention to this issue and taking the time to educate me. The sources reflected here came largely from him. The analysis and errors, if any, are my own.


Transparency In DC Has a Long Way To Go

November 1, 2009

We’re hearing a lot these days about transparency and open government.

President Obama launched his administration with a memorandum committing to “an unprecedented level of openness in government.” Transparency, it says, “promotes accountability and information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”

Here in the District of Columbia, Councilmember Mary Cheh, Chair of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, held a roundtable on the issue a couple of weeks ago. She too was interested in processes for citizens to gain information, in the interests of “open government in the District.”

So it’s occurred to me to wonder what our leaders have in mind when they talk about transparency and openness. One clue are the focuses on new technologies and disclosure under freedom of information statutes. We see them in both the President’s directive and Cheh’s roundtable announcement.

But transparency ought to mean more than giving us access to documents our government produces. The documents ought to be clear and informative enough for us to know what our government is doing.

Back in March, I ranted on the challenges of understanding Mayor Fenty’s proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget. They apparently bedeviled even DC Councilmembers. As Jenny Reed at DC Fiscal Policy Institute notes, the Council wound up approving a budget for the Department of Human Services without knowing it would mean a $12 million cut for homeless services.

Would they have known if they’d opened their last round of budget deliberations to the public, as community groups requested? Perhaps taking advantage of a loophole in the District’s open meeting requirements put the Council at a disadvantage.

There’s something even more important than access and clarity. It’s truthfulness. The thing that’s got me most distressed about the saga of the homeless services budget is that we’ve been treated to a stream of half-truths and evasions.

The Fenty administration repeatedly asserted that there’d been virtually no cut in this budget–this apparently because the budget, i.e., the document presented to the Council, dealt only with the proposed local appropriation. What about the federal TANF funds and general revenue funds that had been used to supplement the appropriation? Oh well, they weren’t part of the budget.

Then, when pressed, DHS Director Clarence Carter testified that TANF funds had been transferred to homeles services last year, but that there were “no additional TANF reserve dollars to make available.” More probing needed to surface the fact that the funds hadn’t just vanished. The department decided to use them for something else.

Nevertheless, Mayor Fenty told a TV interviewer that the view that the homeless services budget had been cut was “either a miscommunication or a distortment [sic] of the facts.” The reality, he said, was that a contractor overspent its budget last year and wasn’t going to get extra money this year just because of “inefficiencies.”

The contractor here is apparently the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which manages homeless services for the District. It’s hard to see how the Partnership–or any contractor for that matter–could actually spend more than the District provided unless it used funds from other sources. The purported overrun is instead almost surely the funds Carter testified his department had transferred.

So Fenty’s account is less than a half-truth. It’s a deliberate and harmful “distortment of the facts.” Harmful not only to the Partnership. Harmful to what’s supposed to be a democratic process.

If the Fenty administration had felt it had to cut funding for homeless services, then it should have said so straight out. The Council could have agreed to the cut, adjusted funding priorities or even done more to raise revenues. We would have had an opportunity to say what we wanted our elected representatives to do.

Our local government is bogged down in recriminations, charges and counter-charges and pervasive mistrust. The lack of transparency about homeless services is far from the only reason. But it’s a good example of how far the District has to go to be a genuinely open government and what happens when transparency falls by the wayside.

NOTE: Thanks to Mike DeBonis, a.k.a. Loose Lips, for alerting me and many others to the TV interview and for his acute comments on the Mayor’s assertions.


Earmarks Not Gone After All

August 27, 2009

Susie Cambria, the expert whose blog keeps us clued in on what’s happening with the District’s budget and policy processes, tells me that some earmarks that were in the original Fiscal Year 2010 budget aren’t really gone. They’ve just gone underground.

True, they’re not clearly identified in the revised Budget Support Act. And true, Council Chairman Vincent Gray stated that Council actions to address the projected shortfall included “elimination of one-time designated grants [earmarks] for FY 10.”

But the Council and the Mayor have agreed that certain agencies have agreed that certain agencies will provide grants of specified amounts to organizations that were formerly to receive funding as earmarks. The big difference is that only a plugged-in expert like Susie knows how to recognize them for what they really are.

I complained before about a lack of transparency in the budget. But this really takes the cake!


DC Budget Challenges

March 23, 2009

Mayor Fenty released his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2010 last Friday. It’s entitled “Meeting the Challenge.” And, indeed, you’ll meet a challenge if you try to read it–unless, of course, you’re an expert in the D.C. budget and have insider information about what lies behind the figures.

Fortunately, the District has local nonprofits that will tell us what the budget means for key programs that affect homeless and other poor residents. So I’ll be writing more about this in the days ahead.

But shouldn’t the budget be reasonably clear to concerned citizens? Shouldn’t we be able to find out how much the Mayor proposes for specific programs and services we care about? Shouldn’t we be told what proposed funding levels will support?

Last year, staff at DC Fiscal Policy Institute wrote a column on the need for a more transparent budget. I find this year’s budget as opaque as the last.

The Fenty administration needs to understand that transparency involves something more than putting government documents on a website. The documents have to be clear enough to enable us to understand what our government plans to do so that we can participate in the decision-making process.

The administration knows how to do a better job. Its new site for uses of federal stimulus funds gives us relevant information in language we can understand and even opportunities for input.

So how about a budget summary and supplements that do the same for the entire D.C. budget?


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