Our lawmakers on the DC Council had decided to wrap up lawmaking for the year on December 21. They had a long agenda and, with Christmas fast approaching, probably shopping to finish up, parties to get to, etc.
So they decided to vote on a revised Budget Support Act* that they’d seen for the first time less than a day before. Decided not to worry that they wouldn’t have a second chance to vote, since Council Chairman Vincent Gray had introduced it as emergency legislation.
Gray had obviously had second thoughts about the impending cuts in cash benefit to families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Also third thoughts, since the final TANF provisions were significantly different from those I’d seen in a version of the substitute BSA circulated several days before.
For poor families dependent on TANF, there’s some tentative good news about cash benefits. Also some news that very ominous — both about cash benefits directly and about sanctions that will henceforward put families at risk of no benefits at all.
As I earlier wrote, the Council voted in early December to phase out benefits for TANF families who’d been in the program for a total of more than five years. This would have meant a 20% cut each year until 2015, when benefits would have been zeroed out.
The final version of the BSA imposes a 20% reduction on these families’ benefits after February 2011, but specifies no further reductions. In other words, it reverts to Mayor Fenty’s budget gap closing proposal.
However, the final BSA allows the mayor to adjust the level of TANF assistance payments through the rulemaking process. It thus opens the door to further benefits reductions.
We’ve got some evidence that Gray has his eye on them. The prior draft of his substitute BSA imposed an across-the-board 12% reduction. For a family of three, this would have meant a maximum of $377 a month — less than 25% of the federal poverty line.
Councilmembers got wind of this, thanks to some swift and effective advocacy. Gray apparently got enough pushback to opt for a strategic retreat. But I think it’s prudent to view further benefits reductions as dormant, not dead.
The final BSA apparently authorizes full family sanctions, i.e., termination of all cash assistance when a participating parent fails to comply with some program requirement.
I say “apparently” because the relevant provision doesn’t expressly authorize full family sanctions. But Chairman Gray referred to them in summarizing the BSA changes, and no one else on the Council piped up to challenge him.
As some of you may recall, Mayor Fenty’s mid-2009 budget gap closing proposal included full family sanctions. The Council rejected them — and wisely.
An Urban Institute study found that many District TANF recipients who’d been sanctioned faced serious challenges that might hinder not only their ability to comply with the work requirements, but even to understand them. Studies of TANF participants in other jurisdictions have raised similar concerns.
Yet the Council has decided to let the Department of Human Services move forward with a three-phase sanctions plan, ending in a total benefits cut-off for any failure to “participate [in] or complete an Individual Responsibility Plan,” i.e., the program of activities the participant is supposed to follow.
The final BSA directs the mayor to submit proposed sanctions policy rules to the Council by April 1. They’ll become effective 45 business days later unless the Council officials disapproves them.
But DHS has until September 30 to fully implement its TANF program reform plan. It can thus begin imposing full family sanctions before it has improved assessments, referral processes, training or other services.
Does it make any sense to punish recipients based on their failure to comply with an Individual Responsibility Plan that may be egregiously inappropriate? Because they haven’t received the services they’d need to comply?
What’s the big rush here anyway?
We know that DHS and some Councilmembers are very concerned about the high percentage of District TANF families who’ve been in the program for more than five years — close to 45%, according to recent testimony by DHS Director Clarence Carter.
How many of them could “graduate” if they’d just buckle down to their required job preparation and/or search activities is an open question. Full family sanctions supporters imply the answer is a lot of them. They just need a greater incentive than the partial sanctions already used.
During the Council’s discussion of the BSA, Chairman Gray said that we “need to encourage people to go to work,” implying that harsher sanctions will do that. But he also linked the new sanctions provision to his decision to, at least temporarily, limit the benefit reduction for long-term participants.
Councilmember Marion Barry, who supported the sanctions provision, noted that the existing appeals process will probably delay completion of the 20% reductions until the end of next year. In other words, not much by way of immediate savings from them.
But when Mayor Fenty proposed the reductions, they were supposed to contribute $4.6 million to closing the budget gap.
That could explain the rush.
As Legal Momentum recently reported, full family sanctions have contributed to large TANF caseload reductions. And states have financial incentives to impose them rather than rely on partial sanctions that preserve assistance for the children in a family.
With full family sanctions, states can avert penalties for failing to meet the federal work participation standard — something the District has struggled with. They can also free up funds for a variety of programs and services available to non-TANF families, e.g., child care, early childhood education.
So is the Council really hoping to bring a lot more families into compliance? Or is it banking on the savings DHS will realize by getting jobless families out of the TANF program?
Could it be hoping to mitigate budget constraints by having additional TANF funds for programs more politically popular than “welfare?”
* The Budget Support Act is one of two pieces of legislation needed to enact or make changes in the District’s budget. It makes whatever changes in existing legislation are necessary for the executive branch to carry out the spending directions in the Budget Request Act, i.e., the actual budget. Like most District legislation, it ordinarily must be passed by the Council twice.