Here’s a modest, overdue reform that may finally get some legislative action — an increase in the extraordinarily low cash benefits for families in the District of Columbia’s TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program.
A bill introduced by DC Councilmembers Jim Graham and Marion Barry would give the benefits an initial boost and then keep them from losing value due to inflation, as they do now.
The initial boost would be small — 15%, plus whatever the CPI-U (the consumer price index most commonly used for inflation adjustments) indicates the cost-of-living increase for the first year should be. The same COLA would then apply in following years.
Benefits haven’t been increased for five years now. And earlier increases weren’t enough to keep them at the same already-low level below the federal poverty line.
So even families whose benefits haven’t been deliberately cut have less, in real dollars, than they would have had in 1990, the year before COLAs were eliminated.
If the COLA had been consistently in force, a family of three would be eligible for a maximum of about $731 a month, instead of $428, assuming no other increases during the last 13 years.
The Graham-Barry bill wouldn’t make up for the full purchasing power lost. DCFPI estimates the maximum for the family of three at $492 a month — presumably if the bill were swiftly passed and signed. Which it probably won’t be.
What will happen almost immediately is a benefits cut for families who’ve participated in TANF for more than five years. Those who were over this lifetime limit the Council agreed to in late 2010 will get a second cut in October.
A family of three will then receive, at most, $257 a month — unless it belongs to one of the groups for whom the time limit will be suspended.
TANF benefits are already absurdly low, even for families still under the time limit. Consider, for example, that the rent on a modest two-bedroom apartment would cost our three-person family more than three times its entire maximum benefit.
Well, that apartment’s obviously not in the family’s budget. And I doubt it will be.
The DC Department of Human Services seems to believe otherwise, since it’s still banking heavily on rapid re-housing to solve the family homelessness crisis — and more specifically, to get families out of (or keep them out of) the DC General shelter.
Most of them are in the TANF program — or assumed eligible. They’re likely to have, at most, a year of subsidized housing before they have to pick up the full costs of rent.
Possible for those who’ve suffered a temporary setback. Unlikely, I think. for the many headed by parents who have significant barriers to employment — let alone employment at a wage that would make an apartment affordable.
For that, the parent of our three-person TANF family would have to land a job paying $56,760 next year — more than three times the local minimum wage.
Meanwhile, all TANF families — and many D.C. residents who aren’t in the program — will lose a portion of their SNAP (food stamp) benefits in November because of decisions Congress has already made.
Roughly 144,000 residents — 22% of the District’s population — will have to stretch their very low benefits even further, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The loss for our family of three will be $29 a month — or about 45% of the increase it would get under the Graham-Barry bill.
In short, the proposal is certainly better than letting the District’s TANF benefits slide further and further below what families need for basic living costs.
But it won’t give them even the support they had when the program was created. They’ll still, in many cases, be in what DCFPI policy analyst Kate Coventry terms “a state of constant crisis.”
“Very difficult for parents to fully focus on job preparation activities” in such circumstances, she adds.
Even a considerably larger TANF boost would still leave them at high risk of homelessness — if they’re not homeless already — because a big part of that “constant crisis” is the woeful shortage of housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income families here.
Also the woeful shortage of long-term housing vouchers that would make more housing affordable.
The Graham-Barry bill would still, as I said, be a step in the right direction. I’d like to see a bigger step when/if the Council decides to act on it.
But obviously the problems facing poor families in the District (and elsewhere) are bigger than any one policy change can resolve.