One Thumb Up for Washington Post Piece on TANF Benefits Cut-Offs

The Washington Post celebrated the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families with a well-meaning, but disappointing article on District of Columbia families who may soon lose what remains of their benefits.

It’s well-meaning because it focuses on what will happen unless the DC Council passes a bill to extend benefits for at least some of them. And it includes some potent warnings about costs the District will incur if it cuts off their cash assistance, thinking to save money.

But it doesn’t make the best case it could have for the extensions the Council is considering. And it leaves out an important piece of the cost issue.

First off, the TANF mom it chooses to focus on isn’t “the typical District welfare client,” as it claims. She and her partner live in a subsidized apartment. So her family’s receiving far more in safety net benefits than most who’ll lose what they get from TANF.

We don’t know how many TANF families are living with accommodating friends or relatives because they don’t have subsidized housing. But we do know that TANF was recently the most common source of reported income for homeless families the District counted, i.e., those in shelters or limited-term transitional housing.

More importantly, the profiled mother has worked in a series of jobs and has a certificate in emergency medicine technology. She says the couldn’t keep working because she couldn’t afford child care for the toddler she then had.

But if I understand correctly, she could have a childcare subsidy now — and for at least awhile longer if she found a new job. Both her work history and the unpaid work she’s doing now to comply with her TANF work activity requirement strongly suggest she could.

Many TANF parents have what are commonly referred to as severe barriers to work. We don’t have current public information on those who’ve exceeded — or will soon exceed — the rigid time limit the District imposes.

But a study of the caseload before the District set the time limit identified a range of barriers — some not swiftly (if ever) overcome, e.g., physical and mental health problems. At least one — learning disabilities — will last until the affected parents’ children are too old for the families to qualify for TANF.

Others, as I remarked before, could prove temporary if the parents have more time and the opportunities they need — a chance to complete high school or a GED program, for example, or to keep looking for a job so they won’t have to divert their energies and perhaps endanger their health the way some adults in extreme poverty must.

These are among the “hardship” cases that would gain extensions of their TANF benefits under the bill awaiting Council action — and, I should add, a formal response from the Bowser administration.

By far and away the largest number of District residents who’ll suffer extraordinary hardships if they lose their benefits have a work barrier they can’t possibly surmount in the near term because they’re children.

Plunging them into the deepest depths of poverty will put them at high risk of lasting mental and/or physical health damages.  So they’re like to have severe barriers when they’re old enough to work.

There’s a reason to refer to the potentially reprieved parents and children as hardship cases — one the Post article fails to mention.

The District could extend benefits for a fifth of its total caseload, based on a combination of domestic violence and “hardship,” however it defines that, and still use its federal funds for the families’ benefits. Benefits here include not only the cash assistance the article focuses on, but all the work-related services the program provides.

Any discussion of the cost of extensions should include this significant fact, as well as the costs of sweeping all the time-limited families out of TANF. Roughly 5,800 of them, including nearly 10,400 children will get swept out in October unless the Council and Mayor agree to reprieve at least some of them.*

But more families will reach the time limit every month unless and until the District adopts an extensions policy, as virtually every state already has. The cumulative impact is something else I’d like to have seen mentioned.

Ah well, that’s what blogs are for.

* These are figures the Department of Human Service recently provided, not to me or for public consumption. They are substantially lower than figures the department has reported earlier, for reasons as yet undetermined.

 

 

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