New DC TANF Sanctions Policy Not As Bad As It Could Have Been, But …

A friend of mine asked what I thought of the DC Council’s approval of a new sanctions policy for our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

She wished I’d blog on it. So here’s the (belated) answer, with some background for those who haven’t been following the twists and turns.

How We Got to This Point

Federal law requires states and the District to impose sanctions when a parent refuses, without “good cause,” to comply with her work activity requirements or cooperate with efforts to collect child support.

The District’s sanctions policy eliminated the portion of the benefit allocated to the parent until she complied. This is the minimum the federal law allows.

At the end of his term as Council Chairman, Mayor-elect Gray pushed through a big legislative package that, among other things, directed him, in his new role, to develop a tougher sanctions policy.

The final version provided no further direction — except a date certain — and was thus generally understood to authorize full family sanctions.

In other words, the policy could include total benefits cut-offs when parents repeatedly didn’t comply with their Individual Responsibility Plans — the specific activities they’re to perform (and the hours they’re to commit) in order to prepare for and/or seek paying work.

Time passes. The Department of Human Services develops a proposed sanctions rule. Gets recommendations for substantial changes. And to its credit, goes back to the drawing board — not once, but twice.

What the Council Considered

What the Mayor finally asked the Council to approve was still extraordinarily punitive.

Basically, a parent who had been earlier sanctioned with two successively severe benefits cuts would have lost all her benefits for at least a month — not only cash assistance for herself and her children, but her child care subsidy and any services she’d been receiving.

Then she’d have had to reapply for TANF and go through the assessment and IRP development process all over again — this before she and her children could get any benefits.

Next time DHS found her out of compliance, she and her children would have lost all their benefits for at least three months.

Again, she’d have had to reapply. But in the meantime, she’d have had to fully and consistently comply with her IRP for at least four consecutive weeks.

In other words, she’d have been doing everything she was supposed to do, but getting no relief from the extreme hardship the sanction imposed.

What the Council Passed

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, the Council threw out the fourth-level sanction.

It also meant to throw out the third-level reapplication requirement, but will have to rely on DHS to reflect this in the final rule because no one noted the omission until after the final vote.

DCFPI thanks the Council for passing “a balanced sanctions policy” — understandably, since it worked hard to get the worst of the bad out, including a six-month minimum for the fourth-level sanction.

But I wish the Council had rejected full family sanctions altogether. And I think the Institute does too, since it first summarizes objections that it and other advocates had raised.

Concerns About Full Family Sanctions

The term “full family” is telling here. Because the sanction cuts off benefits intended for the children, as well as the purportedly delinquent parent, though they, of course, have done nothing wrong.

Well, says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson — one of the two Councilmembers to vote against the modified sanctions policy — “the sanctions are so … [TANF parents] become able, get jobs.”

I’m willing to concede that some parents might shrug off their assigned responsibilities if the cash just kept flowing anyway — especially if those responsibilities failed to prepare them for reasonably good-paying jobs, as has certainly been the case in the past.

In fact, one might argue, as a Government Accounting Office report suggests, that sanctions themselves are a form of job preparation. We all know what happens if you don’t do the work you’re assigned — or often don’t show up at all without asking for leave.

Yet studies of sanctioned parents strongly suggest that many of them have such severe barriers to work that they’re unable to comply with work activity requirements.

They have physical and/or mental health problems, for example. Also problems with alcohol and drug abuse.

They’ve recently experienced domestic violence. They have to care for a child with a disability or chronic illness, which can often mean problems finding suitable child care and unpredictable rush trips to a doctor or hospital.

Some have such “low cognitive functioning” that they can’t read simple words or tell time — thus are unable to use public transportation to get to their assigned activity sites or know when they ought to try to.

More, I would suppose, who can’t fully comprehend their IRPs and related procedures.

Finally, such research as we have doesn’t show that full family sanctions work better than partial sanctions.

The former do, however, generally boost the percent of parents in the caseload who are meeting their work activity requirements — as we should expect, since those subject to full family sanctions don’t count as part of the caseload.

This is one reason states have found full family sanctions so attractive. They’re a ready way to avoid the sanctions states themselves are subject to if they don’t achieve the participation rate the federal law requires. A scathing Legal Momentum report documents the consequences.

The District’s new sanctions policy seems to put strong due process procedures in place — though they may not protect the most vulnerable families, as the Children’s Law Center has explained.

Much depends on whether DHS — and the boss it reports to — want to restrict sanctions to demonstrable cases of willful noncompliance or achieve other objectives.

We’ll need good monitoring here — and records to make that possible. An ample supply of free legal assistance too.

2 Responses to New DC TANF Sanctions Policy Not As Bad As It Could Have Been, But …

  1. […] The state of the District’s welfare law (Poverty & Policy) […]

  2. […] I’ve written before, states — and the District of Columbia — impose sanctions, up to and including […]

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