As I recently wrote, the DC Council may consider a modest increase in the cash benefits that families in the District of Columbia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families can receive.
So the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ update on these benefits is unusually timely. It includes a nationwide overview (glum) and several sets of figures for each state and the District (mostly also glum).
As is customary, the Center uses the maximum benefit available for a family with one parent and two children.
Here’s what we learn about the District’s, plus a few remarks.
The benefit leaves the family far below the poverty line. The benefit is now equivalent to 26.3% of the applicable federal poverty line. Twenty-three states, including Maryland, have benefits at a higher percent of the FPL. And the cost of living in many of them is considerably lower.
The benefit was inadequate to begin with. In 1996, when TANF was established, the D.C. family was at 38.4% of the FPL.
The benefit has lost real-dollar value. In 19
696, the benefit was only $13 less than it is now. It has thus lost 30.6% of its purchasing power due to inflation. Losses in varying amounts affected benefits virtually everywhere. But in two states — Maryland and Wyoming — benefits are now worth more than they were originally.
The benefit doesn’t cover housing costs. The entire TANF benefit the D.C. family receives is only 30.3% of the rental cost of a two-bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s relatively modest fair market rent. This is a lower percent than in all but four states.
SNAP (food stamp) benefits still leave the family well below the poverty line. Even when the estimated SNAP benefit is added to the TANF benefit, the family is still at 58.6% of the FPL. It will soon be somewhat further below because SNAP benefits for all recipients will drop tomorow — for three-person families, by $29 a month.
Seven states increased benefits in 2013 — three of them as a result of a cost-of-living adjustment previously adopted and the rest because of one-time or phased-in boosts.
The proposed increase in District TANF benefits would do something of both in that the first annual cost-of-living adjustment would be accompanied by a one-time 15% increase.
Our one parent-two child family would initially get $492 a month, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s estimate. So the family would still be far below the poverty line — almost surely far enough below to remain in what’s commonly termed severe poverty.
I think the District can do better. The latest revenue estimates are considerably higher than those the current budget was built on — not only for this fiscal year, but for the next three.
And as I’ve written before, the District, like many states, has been using a lot of its TANF funds on programs that aren’t exclusively for TANF families. In fact, in 2011, it may have spent at least some portion of $39 million for purposes other than those Congress established for the program.
But the federal partner has to step up to the plate as well. The block grant, which represents most of its share of TANF funding, is still at the same dollar level as when the program was created — and thus worth 32% less.
I don’t suppose I need to say that neither the District nor any state should plan on a block grant boost — not, at least, until a majority in Congress overcome their obsession with the near-term deficit and, in some quarters, a particular distaste for spending on the poor.
This doesn’t take the District off the hook, however. The Center urges states to “halt the erosion of TANF benefits and restore some of the purchasing power the grants have lost,” now that “the country’s economic outlook is looking somewhat more favorable.”
The District’s economic outlook is a lot more favorable. We’ve got no good reason not to set our sights higher.
UPDATE: I was in error in suggesting that the District might have used some of its 2011 TANF funds for purposes other than those Congress authorized when it created the program. I apologize for not having dug deep enough into the reported expenditures. I should have have made clear that the expenditures I had in mind would have been legal.