I thought the proposed five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits and other D.C. public assistance was dead.
Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, said he wouldn’t move it forward. Councilmember Marion Barry, who cosponsored and apparently initiated the bill, said he wouldn’t vote for it anyway.
“Imperfect and incomplete,” he called it. Really just all about starting “a dialogue on how to break the cycle of generational poverty, government dependency and economic disparity in the city.”
But the time limit has resurfaced in a different form in Mayor Fenty’s plan to close what’s now a $188 million gap in the current budget.
Scrolling through many lines I find inscrutable, I see that the Department of Human Services intends to reduce funding for TANF cash assistance by more than $4.6 million “to more closely align with federal policy.”
The proposed Budget Support Act, which would make District laws consistent with the gap-closing plan, shows that the purported alignment means an across-the-board 20% cut in the maximum TANF cash benefits available to participants who’ve been in the program for a total of more than five years.
This would mean that a District family of three could receive, at most, $342.40 per month — about 77% below the federal poverty line. This when the current maximum leaves the family short $133 per month, even if it has one of those scarce housing vouchers, plus all other standard forms of assistance.
We’ve been cautioned by Council Chairman Vincent Gray not to object to a budget cut unless we’re offering ideas for balancing the budget. Don’t know if the new top tax bracket I’ve joined in supporting would count. The latest letter that Save Our Safety Net has drafted for us says it would raise at least $65 million.
Still, a plan for using the new revenues to protect all under-funded safety net and other core programs is well beyond my expertise. So I’ll confine myself here to noting that nothing in federal policy suggests — let alone mandates — a TANF benefits cut at the end of five years.
States can set their own benefits levels wherever they choose. The federal government’s five-year lifetime limit sets the standard for the caseload that can be partially funded by the block grant. States may exempt up to 20% of their caseload from this limit without financial penalty based on “hardship or domestic violence.” They are also free to use their own funds for a higher percentage.
No exemption whatever in the benefits reduction section the Budget Support Act would add to the District’s public assistance law. Rather, a guarantee that families who, for a variety of reasons, haven’t become — or remained — fully self-sufficient will be plunged into even greater hardship than they are now.
Mayor Fenty tells us that “we cannot afford to ask [residents] to shoulder a bigger financial burden” in these “tough economic times.” I guess poor parents constrained to rely on TANF don’t count.