What We Know (and Don’t) About How DC Spends Its TANF Funds

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will soon have to make a critical decision: What to do about the families that have reached the rigid time limit local law sets on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As I said before, a working group convened by the Mayor has recommended significant revisions to the law. They include both indefinite-term extensions for parents who are complying with requirements set for them and ongoing benefits for their children, no matter what.

This would be probably the single most important thing the District could do now to alleviate poverty. It arguably would save money too — in healthcare costs, for example, homeless services and special education for children who’d suffer brain damages due the high levels of stress that acute poverty can cause.

But sustaining TANF benefits beyond the point that federal block grant funds can be used for them won’t be cheap. So where will the money come from? No one, to my knowledge, has figured that out yet. And it’s certainly beyond my ken.

But it’s worthwhile, I think, to look at where the District’s TANF funds are going now. We have a partial answer from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which publishes annual state-by-state analyses of TANF spending, based on reports states must submit to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Center proceeds from the view that TANF has three core purposes—cash assistance, work activities and child care. These reflect a widely-shared view that the program should serve as a safety net and help parents get (and keep) jobs that will pay enough to make them more self-sufficient.

The District spent only 63.% of its TANF funds, i.e., its share of the block grant, plus local funds, on the core purposes in 2015.

This is relatively more than states as a whole spent. But it still leaves a lot of money to account for — about $99 million, assuming the reported total spending is right.*

Drilling down, we see that the District spent 26% of its TANF funds — roughly $70 million—on cash assistance.

An additional 14% — somewhat over $37 million — went for work activities, most if not all of this presumably to the organizations the District contracts with to provide services that help parents prepare for and find work.

Another 22% — a generously rounded $60 million — funded vouchers that subsidize child care for low-income families. These need not necessarily all be families in TANF. But TANF families are a top spending priority so long as parents fully participate in their required work activities.

The District used 7% of its TANF funds — nearly $18.7 million — for refunds from its Earned Income Tax Credit, i.e., money paid to workers whose allowable income tax claims exceeded their liabilities.

Needless to say (I hope), few of the recipients were TANF parents. As the name suggests, only people with income from work can claim it. They need not be poor or even nearly so. For example, a parent with two children remains eligible until she earns $45,000.

The EITC is nevertheless generally viewed as a powerful anti-poverty measure — in part because it puts money into people’s pockets and in part because it provides an added incentive to work. To this extent, it’s consistent with the over-arching purpose of TANF.

Those keeping track will note that we’ve got about $80 million left to account for — a larger percent than any core purpose received. It’s also a considerably larger percent left over than states as a whole reported.

The Center puts it all but administrative costs into an “other services” bucket. HHS allows states to report some spending as “other” too, but not spending on as many different things as could be left after what I’ve thus far itemized.

So where did the millions go? I asked the Department of Human Services and have thus far not received an answer. I’m hopeful, however, because looking at those “other” items in light of TANF families’ needs seems a useful exercise.

We — and the DC Council — could then better decide if each and every one of those unspecified programs and/or services should continue to receive a share of TANF funds if that means that core purposes don’t get enough.

And should they continue to receive them if the administration and Council then can’t find enough to extend a lifeline to all the at-risk TANF families?

* The Center reports that the District spent about $267 million in TANF funds. This is nearly $100 million more than its share of the block grant, plus the local funds it must spend. The Center accounts for $2 million as block grant funds left over from a prior year, but that obviously leaves more unaccounted for.

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