Short answer to the question the title poses is we already do, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. And about a year from now, we could have well over 6,000, including about 13,000 children with no cash income whatever unless Mayor Bowser comes up with a lifeline that the DC Council approves.
“This is the single most important moment for poverty in D.C.” since the birth of DCFPI in 2001, Executive Director Ed Lazere told a group of us meeting to discuss the crisis those families may face.
What Has Driven So Many Families Into Such Deep Poverty
Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months or more have exceeded the time limit District law now sets. It provides for a benefits phase-out leading to zero in October 2016.
The Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut, but then let it resume. So a three-person TANF family now receives a benefit equivalent to 9% (not a typo) of the federal poverty line.
What Federal Law Has to Do With the Time Limit
No state or the District must have a time limit. We can trace the reason virtually all do to the law that established TANF. It generally prohibits states from using their federal block grant funds for cash assistance to adults or minor heads-of-household after they’ve been in the program for 60 months. Exceptions allowed, however (of which more below).
What We Know About TANF and Work
Parents do, by and large, seem to have a sense of urgency about finding work. Extremely low benefits, as well as imminent cut-offs help account for this, though we shouldn’t ignore aspirations and values they share with the great majority of Americans.
Staying in the workforce — and in a job that pays more than the very low maximum for TANF eligibility — is another matter.
We know from past research that adults who leave TANF for work or because work they had began to pay more often return to the program — about one in five during the late 1990s, when the labor market was considerably more favorable than it is now.
A more recent audit of the District’s longest-term participants casts severe doubts on their employment and earnings prospects. Fewer than half the parents who’d received job training and/or placement help got a job of any sort. And only a tiny fraction still had those jobs six months later.
These dismal results probably reflect, among other things, reasons they’ve come up against the time limit. A deplorable lack of current research here.
But we know from a 2002 study of the District’s TANF caseload that most parents who’d remained in the program for three years faced multiple barriers to work, e.g., less than a high school education, little (or no) work experience, mental health problems, recent and severe domestic violence, sick children or other family members they had to care for.
These findings generally conform to others. An evaluation of a Minnesota TANF employment program, for example, found, among other things, that about two-thirds of participants had a physical or learning disability, a mental health problem and/or responsibility for an incapacitated family member.
What the District Could Do
The District had no time limit until 2011, after soon-to-be Mayor Gray pushed through a bill during his last days as Council Chairman — a license for him to revert to his earlier benefits phase-out plan.
And indeed, he did, but with none of the relief options federal rules allow. For example, the District could extend benefits beyond the time limit for up to 20% of its average caseload and still use federal funds to pay for them so long as the families met criteria for “hardship,” however it chose to define that, or had a member who’d been “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.”
Most states extend benefits when parents, for various reasons, can’t be expected to immediately find work — because they’re victims of domestic violence, for example, sick or incapacitated or caring for family member who is.
As of mid-2013, 14 states provided extensions when parents were “cooperating,” i.e., doing what their plans said they should, but couldn’t find work. This would seem especially relevant to the District’s at-risk families.
Though we don’t know how many of the parents have less than a high school diploma or the equivalent, we do know that working-age residents (25-64 years old) without the credential have very high unemployment rates — nearly 14.6% last year, according to the American Community Survey. Probably even higher for younger residents.
We also know that parents in the District’s TANF program are still on waiting lists for job training and placement services — about 300, the new head of the agency responsible for TANF told us at the meeting.
More to the point perhaps, parents waited, on average, 11 months for such services last year. But the clock kept ticking toward the time limit.
And some of them were pretty far along before the Department of Human Services rolled out improvements in both the training component and the assessments used to decide which services would best prepare parents for work. Time in the old problem-riddled program still counts.
What Will Happen Next
The budget for the upcoming fiscal year pushes back the benefits cut-off that was originally set for October 2015 in part because the Mayor wanted DHS to have some time to develop an extension policy — something it should have done four years ago.
One can hope the policy recognizes the fact that the vast majority of TANF parents aren’t to blame for remaining unemployed — or so egregiously under-employed as to still be income-eligible.
Nor to blame if some unforeseeable barrier arises after they’ve passed the time limit, e.g., an eruption of domestic violence or stalking, a debilitating illness. Needless to say, children aren’t to blame, no matter what.
All this calls for not only liberal extensions, but a rollback of the benefits cuts that have caused such dire hardships for the 60-month families.
Yet even the best extension policy and fully restored benefits can’t make up for flaws in the basic structure of the federal TANF law — the main reason some 1.5 million families have had to get by on, at most, $2 a day.