I’d just finished reading about the punitive aspects of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) when Mayor Fenty released his proposals for closing the District of Columbia’s budget gap. And, sure enough, TANF recipients take a hit.
First off, the Mayor wants to take away the small benefits increase the City Council recently approved. This would leave a TANF family of three with a maximum of $428 per month–the same benefit it’s had since 2008. As I’ve written before, that’s less than 10% of what the family needs to live in D.C.
Second, the Mayor wants to initiate full family sanctions, i.e., total cut-offs of cash assistance when the parent fails to comply with work activity requirements. Or, if not full family sanctions, then something pretty close.
Now this could make sense in some cases if the cut-off affected only the parent. But, of course, it doesn’t. It denies support to the children too.
More importantly, the Mayor’s budget apparently assumes significant increases in sanctions. It proposes a $100 per month bonus for recipients who comply with their work activity requirements. Yet proposed funding for TANF is now $6.2 million less than what the City Council recently approved.
So how can program administrators avoid a cost overrun except by imposing severe sanctions on a significant number of recipients?
At the Council’s initial hearing on the proposals, the City Administrator said that the administration expects no savings from sanctions. Rather, it expects the sanctions to increase compliance and thus enable the District to cover more benefits with federal funds.
That may be the expectation, but I doubt it’s how a heightened emphasis on sanctions will work. More likely, the new policy, combined with the budget cut, will create incentives to find recipients in noncompliance, minimize efforts to resolve problems and get sanctions in place as quickly as possible.
The Administrator also said that the city would not eliminate benefits for families. Yet the proposals themselves say that “customers will have another 6 months to move to full participation” after a second-tier 50% benefit reduction has been imposed. So it seems pretty clear that those who don’t move will face full family sanctions–or such drastic benefits reductions that they might as well be total.
In 2002, the Urban Institute did an intensive study of the District’s TANF caseload. It found that many families under sanctions face “serious challenges” that “might hinder their ability to comply with work requirements or even to understand the system’s requirements.”
Shouldn’t we make very sure these families get the help they need before we cut their lifeline? And where are the reform proposals for that?