DC Council Improves Mayor’s Budget, But Not for TANF Families

Much celebrating in the local advocacy community. Much back-patting in the DC Council. Face-saving endorsement by Mayor Gray.

All this occasioned by the Council’s unanimous approval of a Fiscal Year 2013 budget for the District. And there are good reasons for the high-fives.

Among them, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports:

  • Projected savings and revenues that will preserve hospital-based health services for approximately 19,000 low-income residents insured by the DC HealthCare Alliance.
  • An infusion of $18 million into the Housing Production Trust Fund — basically, a replacement of funds that were shifted out this fiscal year.
  • An additional $4 million for the Local Rent Supplement Program, earmarked to provide stable housing for 200-300 currently homeless families. This will free up space to shelter some of those the Department of Human Services has been turning away.

These are large achievements. And as Councilmember Michael Brown observed, they reflect “great work by the advocacy community in this city,” which focused much of its energy — grassroots especially — on the affordable housing initiatives.

But it’s surely not the case, as the Mayor says, that the budget “protect[s] our most vulnerable residents.”

Nor, as Councilmember Marion Barry asserted during the pre-vote discussion, that it shows “sensitivity to TANF recipients.” Because they, in fact, got left under the bus.

As I earlier wrote, Mayor Gray’s budget assumed more than $5.6 million in savings from further benefits cuts to the 6,100 or so families that have participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months.

Only Councilmember Jim Graham tried to avert the cuts, though all but one member of the Human Services Committee had voted for the TANF Time Limit Amendment Act.

This bill would, among other things, protect long-term participants from further cuts until they’ve been properly assessed and had a chance to benefit from an appropriate mix of programs and services, as the TANF redesign plan envisions.

When Graham tried to fold it into the Budget Support Act — the package of legislation that’s paired to the budget proper — Council Chairman Brown said he couldn’t because the proposal wasn’t paid for.

In other words, no additional savings or revenues had been identified to keep the budget balanced if the amendment became law. And indeed, they hadn’t.

This speaks volumes about priorities and Brown’s cat-herding skills as well.

We are, after all, going to spend $3 million for a bang-up DC Emancipation Day celebration, which Councilmember Vince Orange asked for. Also some unidentified sum for a dog park in Ward 4.

Graham and Brown will supposedly look for the money to fund the time limit amendment before the Council takes the required second vote on the BSA next month.

Let’s not hold our breath. Nor take comfort in the fact that $14.7 million for TANF is second on the Council’s contingency revenue list, i.e., its priorities for spending any Fiscal Year 2013 revenues higher than those projected.

The additional money for TANF — the source of Councilmember Barry’s enthusiasm — is needed to make the TANF redesign a reality, though DCFPI says it wouldn’t be enough to cover employment services for all parents who should receive them.

Not a penny would go to preserving benefits.

So, with or without the wish-list revenues, TANF program improvements won’t go forward as planned.

And participants will still get punished because the program didn’t do what it should have to help them achieve greater self-sufficiency — or exempt those who weren’t ready, as federal rules allow.

Well, politics is the art of the possible. And the Council deserves credit for producing a budget balanced much less on the backs of the poor than the one the Mayor sent over.

But is it a budget that, as Chairman Brown claimed, shows that the Council is “putting people first?” Depends, I guess, on who people are.

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