The DC Council came through for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — as best it could, given that the budget itself was already set in stone.
After some lengthy and heated discussion, it approved an amendment to the Budget Support Act* that would delay further benefits cuts for families who’ve participated in the program for 60 months or more.
And a good thing too. As I (and others) have argued, these families shouldn’t be penalized because the program has egregiously failed to identify their strengths and needs and to link them to the appropriate mix of services.
The additional year before the cuts resume will supposedly give them an opportunity to benefit from program improvements the Department of Human Services is rolling out.
“Supposedly” because DHS still has a long way to go before completing the assessments that will form the basis for individually-tailored training and supportive services plans. Only 25% completed now, according to Councilmember Jim Graham, who introduced the amendment.
At the current rate, some of the at-risk parents won’t have anything like a full year to benefit from their plans. Whether even a year would be enough to enable some of them to secure — and retain — living-wage jobs is another question.
All but three Councilmembers voted for the amendment — a tribute to some very fine advocacy. That plus an evident desire on the part of a couple of Councilmembers not to be on the losing side of a cause that obviously had majority support.
The Council also unanimously rubber-stamped then-Chairman Kwame Brown’s substitute for the BSA it passed in mid-May.
This too is good news for TANF families and those who care about them because the revised BSA folds in some additional provisions that were part of the proposed TANF Time Limits Amendment — or rather folds in something akin to them.
Most would expand eligibility for POWER (Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility) — thus shifting some parents out of TANF and shielding them, at least temporarily, from the 60-month time limit.
These are parents who can’t reasonably be expected to meet the TANF program’s regular work activity requirements — those who, for example, are receiving services to help them recover from the trauma of domestic violence, caring for a severely disabled family member or still in their teens and enrolled in school.
Another provision could give parents an additional 24 months to continue their postsecondary education or participation in a training program leading to a certificate or the equivalent.
Smart move since enabling these parents to get those degrees and certificates is the very best thing the program could do to help them achieve self-sufficiency.
Still another provision would prohibit DHS from counting toward the 60 months time that a child received benefits while living with an adult or adults who didn’t.
These so-called child-only cases are often exempt from the standard time limit — as they surely ought to be since one can hardly expect a child to engage in direct preparation for work.
So the Council did the right thing.
But (why is there always a but?) the benefits cuts will go forward as scheduled unless the Chief Financial Officer projects more revenues than the budget assumes.
Specifically, the estimated $3.8 million cost of the delay will be carved out of the additional $14.7 million for TANF job training that’s second on the list of priorities that will get funded if revenue estimates are higher.
In other words, the fate of more than 6,100 families — including nearly 14,000 children — hinges on a projected revenue increase of at least $10.8 million.
The exemptions and exceptions also hinge on higher revenue projections and would be paid for by another carve-out from the job training pool — this one about $1.75 million, according to the BSA.
As some disturbed Councilmembers observed, the time limits delay will eat into additional funding needed to provide appropriate job training and other services — assuming the hoped-for revenues materialize.
So will the exemptions, though no one mentioned it.
The end result is thus a tad perverse, but the Council chose it by not grappling with the timing and coverage of the benefits phase-out earlier.
Or perhaps I should say the former Council Chairman chose it since the BSA was largely an artifact of his private dealings with Mayor Gray’s staff, and both he and the administration apparently underestimated the support the benefits delay would have.
I have nothing like the expertise that would be needed to comb through the Fiscal Year 2013 budget and identify funds that could obviously have been better spent on benefits for the very poor families who rely on them — and on training that would enable many of them to be off “welfare,” which they want as much as the Mayor and Council do.
I’ve just got a hard time believing that everything in the $9.4 billion budget is more important.
As things stand now, we’ve just got to keep our fingers crossed.
* The Budget Support Act is the package that makes whatever legislative changes the Budget Request Act, i.e., the budget proper, requires.