Shortly before the election, Washington Post reporter Rachel Weiner observed that none of the mayoral candidates had even mentioned “a dramatic change in the city’s welfare program that could drag many poor families into further distress.”
She was referring to the District’s decision to phase out Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to families who’ve received them for a lifetime total of five years. The DC Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut — and for good reasons, as Weiner indicates.
But the cuts have gone forward again. They’re likely to leave more than 6,000 families with no cash assistance whatever come next September — unless the Council and soon-to-be Mayor Bowser agree to change the law.
But what about families whose benefits haven’t been cut? Not much of a safety net for them, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ recent state-by-state update on the benefits shows.
CBPP looks at the maximum cash benefit a single parent with two children can receive. That was $428 in the District when the Center did its analysis.
A provision in the latest Budget Support Act, i.e., the package of legislation that’s paired with the budget proper, provides for a cost-of-living adjustment this fiscal year, based on the Consumer Price Index.
That, I’m told, will boost benefits by 1.5% — just making up for what our three-person family’s benefit lost in value due to inflation during the July 2013-14 period.
The family will still have an income at about 26% of the federal poverty line. And it will be considerably worse off than three-person families were when TANF began.
Adjusting for inflation, the maximum benefit for our D.C. family has lost about a third of its real-dollar value. Losses were smaller in more than half the states.
And, as we all know, the cost of living here is higher than in most places. CBPP provides just one measure — the gap between the maximum TANF benefit for three-person families and the fair market rents the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set for a modest two-bedroom apartment.
The pre-COLA maximum benefit for our D.C. family is 29.1% of the FMR for the apartment. In other words, the family couldn’t come anywhere near to paying for it, even if it spent its entire benefit on rent.
This is true for families in every state, but the rent shortfall is greater than the District’s in only two — Mississippi and Tennessee. Not, I suppose, states the District would choose as benchmarks.
Rankings of this sort aren’t nearly as relevant as the measures of how woefully inadequate TANF benefits are — and how more woefully in adequate they’ve become over time.
So far as housing is concerned, the maximum for our D.C. family would have covered nearly 44% of the FMR in 2000 — still a very large shortfall, but smaller because the benefit was worth more and rents in our area hadn’t skyrocketed.
Now, it’s true that some TANF families in the District have more cash income than the maximum benefit indicates because our local program exempts a fair amount of earned income when setting benefit levels.
Also true, however, as indicated above, that many families are receiving far less than the maximum. The phase-out alone has left some three-person families with as little as $152 a month.
Most, if not all of the families, however, receive a separate cash-equivalent benefit from SNAP (the food stamp program). Yet the cash value of SNAP benefits still leaves TANF families far below the poverty line.
CBPP shows this by combining the average monthly SNAP benefit for TANF families with the maximum the three-person family can get from TANF. With the two benefits, so defined, our D.C. TANF family was at 54.4% of the FPL in July.
But, says CBPP, this is probably an overstatement for many families because the average SNAP benefit it calculated assumes housing, plus utility costs high enough to qualify families for the maximum.
No such costs for the families in the DC General shelter, most of whom depend on TANF benefits. And lower costs, if any that families can claim if they’re doubled-up with accommodating friends or relatives.
There could be fewer homeless families if the District substantially increased TANF benefits now, as originally proposed, and modified the phase-out to preserve benefits for families who’d otherwise become destitute, even though the parents had done everything they were told to.
These could include families with a parent who’s working, but not able to earn enough to support herself and her kids and those with a parent who isn’t working because jobs she could qualify for are just too scarce.
And then perhaps there are parents who didn’t do everything they were told to because they couldn’t, e.g., those with certain intellectual disabilities or PTSD that caseworkers had failed to identify.
But such exemptions would still leave some families subject to phased-out benefits that would sink them even deeper in poverty than they already are — and less likely to achieve the self-sufficiency that TANF is supposed to promote.
How can you focus on preparing for — or seeking — work when you’re trying to figure out where you and your kids will spend the night or how you’ll feed them now that you’ve run through your monthly SNAP benefit?
Problems even for parents who are still within the rigid time limit now.