DC TANF Program Short-Changed Core Purposes

My last post focused on the “cautionary tale” we can find in how states spent their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. Now here, as promised, is what we learn about the District of Columbia’s TANF spending.*

The figures are somewhat dated, but they’re still relevant to decisions the DC Council must make as it works on the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The District reported $254 million spent on TANF in 2013. Twenty-three percent went for cash assistance. This is a tad higher than the percent reported for 2012. But a family of three was still left at 26% of the federal poverty line. And that’s about where it is now, unless it’s one of the 6,300 families whose benefits have been cut three times already.

They’ll get zero, come October if the Council doesn’t approve the Mayor’s proposal to give them a one-year reprieve. Even if it does, our three-person family will have to get along somehow on $156 a month — roughly 9% of the current FPL.

The Bowser administration justifies the reprieve on the basis of continuing weaknesses in the employment component of the District’s TANF program.

I’ve previously reported the results of an audit that focused on outcomes for the parents facing benefit cut-offs who were actually referred to a contractor for job training and/or help in finding a job. Not encouraging.

But there are two other parts to this story. One is that some parents have had to wait for nearly a year to get those job-related services. This may be in part because the Gray administration froze additional funds for them.

And that’s perhaps because the Department of Human Services didn’t spend all the TANF employment funds in its budget, according to the new director. We certainly see what seems to be under-spending in the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report I’m using here.

Only 15% of TANF funds spent on work-related activities in 2013. And even this was a marked improvement over 2012, when only 7% went for what surely ought to be a top priority for a TANF program.

At the same time, the District spent an unusually low percent of its TANF funds on administration and systems — 2%, as compared to a nationwide 7%.

This matters because the DC Council enacted exemptions from the benefits phase-out for families facing specified hardships, i.e., difficulties, beyond the usual, that parents would face trying to support themselves and their kids.

One, added for the current year, would temporarily stop the time clock for mothers with infants to care for. But the department hasn’t actually granted this exemption. The reason, we’re told, is that it doesn’t have the computer capacity to suspend time-counting for the moms and their babies.

I personally believe that the TANF time limits merit rethinking altogether. DHS itself is looking into a policy that would convert the one-time hardship exemptions for at least some of the designated families and perhaps others into hardship extensions, as federal law has always allowed.

But that’s not even on the drawing board yet. The proposed reprieve is on the Council’s must-decide agenda.

A rollback of the benefits cuts should be too, given what we know about job training waiting lists — and the many months families had to wait for the assessments used to decide what training and/or other services they should get to give them a reasonable chance of success in the workplace.

Beyond these obviously urgent issues, the Council should, I think, take a hard look at how DHS spends its TANF dollars. In 2013, the department spent nearly as much on “non-assistance” as on work activities. What’s in this catch-all category is a mystery. Not the department’s fault, but rather a flaw in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ reporting format.

The new DHS director, unlike her predecessor, shared a break-out of TANF spending with parties interested enough to have attended a recent briefing. Some money here, some there, some someplace else.

I doubt the Council has ever delved into the dispersal of TANF funds. Every dollar may support something worthwhile. But the mechanism is hardly responsible — let alone transparent — budgeting.

And it inevitably diverts funds from cash support for very poor families and from work-related services that can help the parents get to the point where they can pay for their families needs.

These, I think most of us view as core purposes of the TANF program. And both the CBPP report and everything else we know suggests they’re being shorted.

* The TANF funds spent include the District’s federal block grant share and what it claimed as its maintenance of effort, i.e., what it spent of its own funds, plus funds that some nonprofits spent on at least on of the program’s four major goals.

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this post, I learned of a petition the Fair Budget Coalition has created to drum up Council support for the proposed reprieve. Some on the Council, I’m told, are in need of persuasion. So I hope those of you who are District residents will sign. You’ll find the petition here.

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