In less than eight months, some 6,000 families in the District of Columbia will have no cash income whatever, unless the parents can land jobs PDQ. Most probably won’t because they would have if they could have.
The families I’m referring to have participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 or more months. The benefits they’ve received have been, at best, extremely low — $428 a month for a parent with two children.
But their benefits have already been slashed. Our three-person TANF family facing a cut-off now receives $152 a month. Is this what a parent would choose over paying work of any legal kind, assuming s/he’s got someone to care for the kids?
Of course not. The parents who’ve perforce depended on TANF for a long time or recurrently often have what are euphemistically called severe barriers to work, e.g., debilitating physical and/or mental health problems, domestic violence trauma, functional illiteracy.
The District’s TANF program will count time spent receiving services to help overcome such barriers as compliance with its work activity requirements. But it won’t stop the clock ticking toward the cut-off date, except for the relatively few parents who’ve been shifted out of TANF into a locally-funded program.
Most parents used to be placed in programs designed to get them into the workforce quickly, regardless of their needs and skills. No real attention to whether they could stay in the workforce. Most didn’t, as even the District’s short-term tracking showed.
Then the Department of Human Services revamped the TANF program, providing for individualized assessments and a range of services, including more diverse education and job training options. But time spent in the flawed program still counts toward the 60 months.
And parents who were deemed work-ready, either initially or after some “barrier-removal” services, had to wait for job training because the budget didn’t fund enough slots. Again, the clock kept ticking.
Now Mayor Bowser and the DC Council can let these very poor parents and their children fall into utter destitution or decide that the 60-month limit is, at the very least, too rigid, if not a bad idea altogether.
When they consider the options, as one hopes they will, they should recall that the Council hastily adopted the time limit as part of a budget-gap closing package that then-Chairman Vincent Gray pushed through shortly before he became mayor.
At least some Councilmembers — and we the public — were sold a bill of goods when a less draconian version of the benefits cut-off surfaced in the original gap-closing bill. DHS called it a measure “to more closely align with federal policy.”
But, as I said at the time, nothing in federal policy compels states or the District to cut — let alone end — TANF benefits at the end of five years. The rules only prohibit the use of federal funds to help pay for them.
And not altogether. States and the District may use federal funds to extend benefits for up to 20% of their average monthly caseload based on “hardship or domestic violence.” About 20 states do, in one form or another. The District has taken a pass. It exempts parents from their regular work requirements, but it keeps the clock running. And, as I already said, it set the clock to start when TANF families first enrolled.
So more than 6,100 families lost a portion of their benefits with virtually no warning — and little or no chance to first improve their employment prospects through the new, improved assessment and referral process.
Many would still have faced high barriers — not only those I’ve mentioned, but others that some states count as “hardship,” e.g., the need to care for a chronically ill or severely disabled child.
And then there’s that barrier confronting all local job seekers who don’t have a college degree. Last year, 19% of District residents without a high school diploma couldn’t find work, even part-time. The unemployment rate for those with, but no more was only 1% lower.
So we’ve undoubtedly got TANF parents who’ve been putting in their required work activity hours searching for a job, but to no avail. Yet we’re about to punish them — and their children — further by cutting off their benefits.
The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s recommendations to the Mayor and Council include a temporary, renewable benefits extension for parents up against the time limit when they can’t find a job that offers enough hours for them to make ends meet.
Some other parents should get extensions too, it says — those who aren’t yet work-ready, for example, and those with the kinds of significant barriers I cited above. It also recommends extensions when families will otherwise suffer “serious hardship,” e.g., homelessness.
One can make lots of arguments, moral and pragmatic, for protecting families from the benefits reductions and cut-offs they face under the current law.
Among the most pressing of both sorts is what’s providing to be an unprecedented homeless family crisis. Stingy TANF benefits help explain it — as, of course, do the even stingier benefits the 60-month families are getting.
But there are still families who’ve managed to stay housed, at least for awhile — by doubling-up (or tripling-up) with other low-income families, for example, or by contributing to the household expenses of a hospitable friend of relative.
These arrangements are by no means ideal for the children, since housing instability of any sort tends to harm them — and in ways that have lasting effects. But they’re better for them than living in the DC General shelter — or on the streets when it’s not cold enough for them to get in.
And they’re better than the cut-offs for the District’s budget too, though I’d like to think our policymakers will take a broader view of their responsibilities when they decide whether to extend a lifeline to at-risk TANF families.