A Sad TANF Story That Should Never Have Happened

I got a call from someone who follows this blog — a homeless mother who lives in Rockville, Maryland. She hoped I could advise her.

I couldn’t, but I’d like to tell her story because it speaks to a couple of policy issues that ought to be high on the agenda — here in the District of Columbia and nationwide.

For reasons I hope are obvious, I’m not going to use my caller’s name. Let’s just call here N.

She’s working, but earning only $8.00 an hour. Absent father pays no child support. So she and her kids depend in part on the cash benefits they get from Maryland’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The program is about to impose full family sanctions, i.e., to cut off their benefits entirely. This, it seems, on the recommendation of the contractor that delivers the program’s job-related services.

N said that partial sanctions were first applied when a caseworker who was fired didn’t tell his successor she’d been working. Another round of partial sanctions when the new caseworker failed to submit a routine report verifying that she had been.

Both times she was told not to worry. Everything would be fine. But the caseworker then said she hadn’t applied for a particular job, as instructed. N said she had and provided such proof as she could.

But the caseworker either wouldn’t or couldn’t reverse the full family sanctions decision. So N appealed. Appeal denied, which is hardly surprising since she was up against a large multi-state job services contractor and an agency equally committed to defending itself.

This is a fine illustration of what can happen when a state adopts a full family sanctions policy. All but five have one now. And the District is about to join them.

On the one hand, states — and the District — have strong incentives to impose full family sanctions. Legal Momentum cites several in federal policy. I’d add plain old budget constraints.

On the other hand, those same budget constraints can mean little or no oversight of the operations that state agencies contract out. Note how N’s caseworkers papered over the lapses — and impacts — of the partial sanctions.

But even the best system won’t prevent misunderstandings and mistakes. That’s why TANF programs should include a pre-sanctions conciliation process.

If the objective is truly to bring participants into compliance, then why rush to sanction when there could be remedies that wouldn’t leave them and their children without enough money to live on?

It’s also why strong due process protections are so important. If all else fails, TANF participants deserve advance notice of what they’re accused of and the sanction awaiting them — and in a form they can understand. They deserve an impartial hearing that lets them tell their side of the story.

That said, TANF participants are likely to be at a disadvantage when it comes to formal hearings and the like. So, I think, would most of us be.

Which brings me to another policy issue.

N’s story shows why we need well-funded legal services programs to advise and represent low-income people when they have to deal with the powers-that-be, including complex and often unfriendly bureaucracies.

As I’ve written before, nonprofit legal services programs have been struggling with a funding crunch for some time now.

Part of the problem is that Congress has consistently under-funded the Legal Services Corporation, which provides grants to somewhat over a third of the country’s 500 or so nonprofit legal services programs.

They and others have also fallen victim to state budget cuts — and, very importantly, a huge fall-off in income from IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Account) programs.

In 2009, the Legal Services Corporation reported that fewer than 20% of the legal problems low-income people experienced were handled with the help of an attorney.

The Corporation’s budget got cut by $15.8 million in the continuing resolution that’s keeping the federal government funded now.

So I had a sinking feeling when I gave N the contact information for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau’s Rockville office.

She needed a lawyer — actually had needed one for some time. But what are her chances of getting help with what’s now an urgent and fairly challenging problem?

What chances will other poor moms have if the Senate goes along with the House of Representatives’ spending rollback plan?

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