We often see “one size fits all” used to characterize programs of various sorts, including the District of Columbia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The services aren’t that way any more. But the time limit is.
Families can participate for a lifetime total of 60 months. For some, that’s enough. For many, it’s not because the parents can’t get — and keep — a job paying anything like what they need to support themselves and their children.
We can get a handle on the barriers these parents face from the extensions the bill I recently mentioned would provide. They signal the sweeping nature of the time limit in another way too — specifically, that it denies benefits to children, who, of course, can do nothing to support themselves or make their parents more employable.
Different Extensions for Different Situations
Some of the proposed extensions would apply to parents who just need more time to surmount the barriers they face. Others recognize that some parents or substitute caregivers will probably face barriers until the kids are grown — longer, in fact, but they won’t be eligible for TANF any more.
This isn’t to say that we can use the extensions to neatly classify each TANF parent who might qualify. In some cases, it’s hard to say whether a parent just needs another year or so of cash support and services or whether further services probably won’t boost her over the barrier — or barriers — between her and gainful work.
The plural here because we shouldn’t assume that each parent faces only one barrier, as the Urban Institute’s analysis of the District’s TANF caseload clearly shows.
We can nevertheless find in the extensions various reasons families shouldn’t get tossed out of the program because they’ve reached a fixed, across-the-board time limit.
Parents Who Just Need More Time
Some extensions imply barriers parents can often surmount. For example, we find one for parents who’ve experienced domestic violence and are still receiving counseling or other such services to help them cope with the trauma.
Another extension would apply to parents who’d have an unusually hard time finding a job because the local unemployment rate for workers without at least a high school diploma is 7% or higher.
Two extensions would tend to reduce the number eligible for the above. One would apply to teenage parents enrolled in high school or a GED program.
The other would buy time for parents enrolled in a postsecondary education program or a credential-granting program that’s passed muster with the Department of Employment Services.
If TANF is supposed to reduce dependency, as the federal law says, then forcing these parents to quit their studies and seek low-wage, unstable jobs — the only sort most could get — is obviously counter-productive.
Parents Up Against Seemingly Permanent Barriers
Here we find an extension for parents who have severe mental or physical disabilities, but haven’t qualified for either of the two main federal sources of cash support for people too disabled to work.
Another extension would apply to parents with learning disabilities that preclude employment. Still another, which might overlap, is for parents who can’t read at the level expected of eighth graders.
Another would apply to any parent or “caretaker” who’s at least 60 years old — this, of course, because anyone in that age bracket who’s jobless and has been for long enough to hit the time limit will more than likely remain so.
Parents Behaving Responsibly
The bill specifically conditions some extensions on a parent’s compliance with her Individual Responsibility Plan, i.e., the set of activities she’s required to regularly engage in and the services she should receive.
Some parents may not qualify for any of those I’ve highlighted, but are dutifully following their plans. They too would qualify for extensions, as well they should, since they’re doing their best to move from welfare to work.
Families Likely to Suffer Specific Hardships
The bill would provide extensions for families that suffer certain hardships due, at least in part, to the very low benefits they receive — and for others that would suffer them without the benefits.
These include families that are homeless or likely to be. Also reprieved are those that would effectively cease to be families because the children would be put in foster care. This itself is a child protection — and anti-poverty — measure, since we’ve ample evidence that children who grow up in foster care tend to fare poorly.
More generally, all children would have some protection from poverty so dire it’s commonly referred to as “extreme.” Even if their parents didn’t get an exemption, their own share of their families’ benefits would continue until they themselves became ineligible — when they reached legal adulthood, for example.
Reprieves, Not Repeal of the Time Limit
The bill doesn’t extend benefits indefinitely for the families it would protect. Generally speaking, their cases would be reviewed every six months, though the Mayor could set longer review periods — a sensible choice, given the nature of some barriers.
The bill does, however, do more than avert worse hardships. It rolls back benefits for exempt families to what they would be if the DC Council, with then-Mayor Fenty’s apparently hearty approval, hadn’t established the across-the-board time limit.
Both the extensions and the rollback tacitly admit the policy was a mistake. And I suppose that’s the best we can hope for — at least, in the near term.
And near term is where we need to focus because, as I (and many others) have said, 6,000 or so families, including more than 13,000 children will have no TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to change the policy — and thus on a budget that covers the District’s share of the costs.