DC Moves Forward on Affordable Housing. House Republicans Pull Back.

May 18, 2015

Here in the District of Columbia, we’re hopeful about prospects for more affordable housing, especially for our very lowest-income neighbors — both those homeless now and those at high risk because they’re paying at least half their income for rent.

The Mayor’s proposed budget largely accounts for these hopes. Meanwhile, our Republican neighbors on Capitol Hill have decided to put a damper on our progress — and the progress of communities nationwide.

National Housing Trust Fund Defunded

The Mayor’s proposed budget would dedicate $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund — our largest source of public financial support for projects to build and renovate affordable housing.

This would double the amount the Fund has for the current fiscal year and probably expand the District’s affordable housing stock by 1,000 or more units, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports.

The District could have counted on a share of the revenues that at long last were to flow to the National Housing Trust Fund. But the House subcommittee responsible for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s appropriations raided those revenues.

A bit of budgetary legerdemain here. Basically, the subcommittee cut funds for the HOME program, which provides grants to state and local governments for a wide variety of activities related to housing and home ownership.

But it then partially offset the cut by allocating to HOME all the funds that were supposed to go to the Trust Fund. And for reasons not altogether clear to me, it tucked into its bill a provision prohibiting any other funding for the NHTF.

The defunding — and the under-funding I’ll discuss below — were approved by the full Appropriations Committee last week, on a straight party-line vote.

So much then, so far as the majority’s concerned, for funds intensively targeted to rental housing for extremely low-income households, as only 40% of the District’s Trust Fund resources must be.

Federally-Funded Housing Vouchers at Risk

The Mayor’s proposed budget would expand the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s locally-funded version of the federal Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) voucher program.

LRSP would get an additional $6.1 million — $3.7 million for tenant-based vouchers, which go directly to extremely low-income households so that they can afford to rent at market rates, and $2.4 million for project/sponsor-based vouchers, which help cover the operating costs of housing that’s affordable for these households.

But it’s doubtful the DC Housing Authority, which administers both LRSP and Housing Choice, will have more vouchers to award.

The House HUD appropriation reduces the funding local housing authorities will have to renew Housing Choice vouchers. They’d be shy a total of $183 million of what HUD estimates they’d need to sustain all vouchers now in use.

Here in the District, about 280 fewer families would receive Housing Choice vouchers, according to a White House fact sheet. If accurate, this means that DCHA would have to retire even more vouchers than it did after the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

DCHA and other housing authorities may face similar problems with the contracts they’ve awarded to affordable housing projects. The President’s proposed budget included HUD’s best estimate of the cost of renewing all such contracts. The House HUD appropriations bill falls $106 million short of that.

Further Losses in Habitable Public Housing

A nationwide study conducted for HUD five years ago found a $26 billion shortfall in the funds needed to repair and renovate public housing units. DCHA alone figured it would need $1.3 billion to preserve and redevelop all the units it manages.

That was about a year ago, not long before Congress level-funded the public housing capital fund, leaving it with $625 million less than it had when the HUD study produced its shortfall estimate. And level-funding doesn’t translate into the same level and quality of goods and services, as all of us with personal and household expenses know.

The House Appropriations Committee has nevertheless cut funding for the capital fund by $194 million. Hard to see how this wouldn’t further increase the number of public housing units left vacant — or demolished — because they’re egregiously substandard or so damaged by fire, flooding and the like that repair costs exceed available resources.

Squeeze on Homeless Services

The Mayor’s proposed budget includes a range of investments to move the District forward toward the goal of making homelessness in the District “rare, brief, and non-recurring,” as the new Interagency Council on Homelessness strategic plan envisions.

Her budget also includes a more realistic estimate of the costs of providing emergency shelter for families during the winter months — a refreshing change from the past few years, when the Gray administration minimized family shelter needs and then had to shift funds from other human services programs to cover the costs of motel rooms.

As in the past, local funds would supply most of the homeless services budget. But the District also expects a small increase in homeless assistance funding from HUD.

The House Appropriations Committee would, in fact, provide a small, increase for the grants — $50 million more than approved for this fiscal year. For all intents and purposes, however, the grants would, at best, preserve the status quo.

No additional money to help communities achieve the goals set by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — a source for the District’s own ICH goals.

And lest I haven’t rained on this parade enough, the Mayor’s plan to expand permanent supportive housing includes an as-yet unreported number of Housing Choice vouchers supplied by DCHA. So we could be looking here at a robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Not the District’s fault. It’s what the Republican Congressional majority chose when it decided not to lift the caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, but instead to boost defense spending through another bit of budgetary legerdemain.

None of this is yet a cause for hand-wringing, though teeth-gnashing seems appropriate. A bill passed by one appropriations committee is a long way from becoming an agency’s budget.

But we’re a long, long way from a HUD budget that would meaningfully support the District’s commitments to more affordable housing and a lot less homelessness.

 

 

 


DC TANF Program Short-Changed Core Purposes

April 23, 2015

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.


Another Take on the Proposed DC Sales Tax Increase

April 16, 2015

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute makes a case for the proposed increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax. It’s persuasive. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m persuaded that the increase will serve the interests of some of the District’s poorest residents better than a campaign to replace it.

So, in a semi-retraction of my earlier post, here’s what DCFPI says, fleshed out for those who haven’t been immersed in the issues and punctuated with remarks of my own.

The increase is very small. It would add a quarter of a penny per dollar to the purchase price of anything subject to the sales tax. DCFPI has figured that poor families would probably have to pay at most $25 more a year.

The District needs additional revenues for homeless services. The Mayor has said that the additional tax revenues would fund the first steps in making reforms laid out in the new strategic plan adopted by the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Her budget would, among other things, provide more permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families with a chronically homeless adult member.

It would convert a pilot rapid re-housing program for individuals into a regular program and expand it so that more of them who don’t need PSH could move from shelter into housing they’ll be able to afford — at least, till their short-term subsidy expires.

It would create some new, specially-targeted housing vouchers for individuals and families who no longer need the intensive services PSH provides, but can’t afford market-rate rents. Individuals and families who come to the end of their term in rapid re-housing, but still can’t afford those rents would also be eligible for the vouchers.

The budget would also dedicate funds to begin the process of closing the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter. About $4.9 million would pay rent to landlords who’ve offered up units — thus moving 84 families into more habitable living quarters swiftly.

All worthwhile investments, I think you’ll agree.

Other recent changes in the District’s tax code would more than offset the increased sales tax burden on lower-income residents. The DC Council enacted a higher standard deduction for income taxes last year. It expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, enabling them to get the same credit as from the federal EITC.

And it raised the income threshold for Schedule H property tax relief, which benefits renters, as well as homeowners. Elderly residents get a higher tax credit too.

Now, of course, residents with no earned income and not enough income from any other source to owe income taxes or pay rent won’t benefit from these changes. But “a large share of lower-income households” would come out ahead, even with the sales tax increase, according to DCFPI.

The Tax Revision Commission recommended the increase. Now, the Commission need hardly be the last word on the District’s tax policies. In fact, at least one of its recommendations made me cringe — a five-fold, plus increase in the dollar value of estates exempt from our local estate tax. (DCFPI didn’t like this either.)

At the same time, the Commission’s recommendations have credibility where it counts. The income tax and EITC changes I mentioned above originated with the Commission. So from a political perspective, the sales tax increase stands a better chance in the Council than some more progressive revenue raisers coming out of left field (pun intended). And we already have some evidence that any increase is likely to encounter headwinds.

The increase would make the sales tax rate the same as Maryland’s and Virginia’s. The point, I think, is not that the District should model its tax policies on its neighbors’. It’s rather that the new sales tax rate wouldn’t be higher than theirs — and thus tend to shift retail purchases across the borders.

Perhaps DCFPI is also giving preemptive reassurance to Councilmembers who’ve used Maryland and/or Virginia tax rates as arguments against tax increases here. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to have gotten Finance and Revenue Committee Chairman Jack Evans on board. Nor will it, I suspect. But he’s only one Councilmember out of what will soon be twelve.

Bottom line: I doubt the Council will adopt an alternative, more progressive revenue raiser to support reforms in our homeless services system. And I’m quite sure it won’t shift nearly $19 million from other programs to support them while leaving revenues alone.

If we want those homeless service reforms, then we’ve seemingly got to settle for a less than ideal way of getting money for them. And this won’t be the end of the story anyway because the sales tax revenues won’t cover the costs of putting all those needed reforms in place.

 


Should DC Raise Its Sales Tax to Help End Homelessness?

April 6, 2015

As you may have read, Mayor Bowser has proposed a quarter of a percent increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax to raise revenues for homeless services. The new rate would be 6%, as it was from mid-2009 until October 2013.

The bump-up would raise an estimated $22.2 million in the upcoming fiscal year and slightly more in each of the three out-years the budget must project. About $18.7 million would move the District toward the goal of ending homelessness.

One of those quick, easy Washington Post online articles asks whether Bowser should be increasing the sales tax — quick and easy because it consists mainly of imported tweets. But it poses a good question. And we’re bound to hear more answers than we already have.

Here’s how I see the issue at this point.

For the Sales Tax Increase

The best argument in favor of the increase is that the District needs more money to reduce homelessness — let alone to make it “brief, rare, and non-recurring,” as the new strategic plan intends.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute gives us an itemized account of $12.7 million in spending on plan priorities that the sales tax increase would apparently cover.* The remainder of the $18.7 million would give about 6,000 families a yearlong reprieve from the impending cut-off of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

Many are homeless already. But the reprieve is still a fair, sensible preventive measure if ever there was one. It would be even more effective (and fairer) if the budget rolled back at least some portion of the earlier benefits cuts that have left the families with a pittance.

Against the Sales Tax Increase

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was quick off the dime. “When revenues are growing by 3 percent,” he told reporters, “you don’t need to be raising taxes.” This, however, assumes that projected revenuessans tax increases, will be enough to pay for all critical needs.

Tackling the large, complex homelessness problem is, of course, only one of them. Perhaps Councilmembers can carve out sufficient funding from other programs, but neither he nor anyone else knows that now. And it’s not what he’s saying.

What he also says, however, raises what’s probably the most significant objection to the sales tax increase — and to sales taxes generally. They’re regressive, i.e., take larger shares of income from lower-income people than from those who are wealthier.

The District’s sales tax isn’t as regressive as some. I recall my shock when I moved from Berkeley, California to St. Louis and discovered that I had to pay tax on food I bought at the grocery store and on over-the-counter medicines.

The proposed increase would nevertheless require anyone who shops in the District to pay somewhat more for items that are also basic necessities — toilet paper, soap, light bulbs, shoes, etc. Most shoppers who’d take the hit are District residents.

DCFPI’s Executive Director, Ed Lazere, puts the best face on this he can, telling a Washington Times reporter that the effect on families is likely to be modest — a point the Institute’s budget brief repeats.

But, he adds, “All things being equal in a city that is marked by increasing income inequality, it probably would have been reasonable to raise revenues by asking those with the highest incomes to pay a little bit more.”

Alternative Revenue Raisers

Now, I don’t have anything like the expertise to say how the District could raise at least as much revenue as the proposed sales tax increase in a more progressive way. But I can draw on concepts experts have floated.

You who follow this blog know I’m about to get on my hobby horse and cite services that are still exempt from the sales tax. All but six in the long list DCFPI compiled in 2010 still are. And the vast majority of them can hardly be viewed as basic necessities.

Our property taxes are also worth a look. We have some extraordinarily pricey homes here in the District that are taxed at the same relatively low rate as small, unrenovated homes in our as-yet ungentrified neighborhoods.

And the tax collected doesn’t capture their actual increasing value because residential property tax increases are capped. Owners who live in those homes most of the year also benefit from reduced assessments.

I understand the need to craft a property tax increase carefully so as to protect low-income owners who bought their homes many years ago, before housing prices soared. But I think it could be done.

What surely could be done is to repeal the recent property tax break for seniors with incomes far from low. This beneficiary would willingly forfeit it to help fellow residents with no homes whatever.

There are probably other — and perhaps better — alternatives. But whatever the DC Council may consider will raise outcries from some interested parties. That’s just how revenue policymaking works. As former Senator Russell Long quipped many years ago, “[D]on’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”

In the immediate case, I hope that fellow behind the tree won’t be a mother who already can’t afford to buy enough diapers.

That said, it may be wrong to frame this issue as an either-or choice. DCFPI cites several priorities that could require more revenues than the sales tax hike would raise. Two speak directly to homelessness — the rollback of the TANF benefits cuts and additional locally-funded housing vouchers.

More generally, I suspect that dedicated sales tax revenues will fall far short of the funds needed to end long-term homelessness in the District within five years — even if budgets continue to ensure $100 million a year for the Housing Production Trust Fund.

I note that the Mayor’s State of the District address pushes the target year forward to 2025. Doubt this is just a slip by her speechwriter.

* As DCFPI notes, the Mayor’s budget includes $40 million to construct some smaller shelters — a step toward replacing the DC General family shelter. The money would be borrowed, however, not drawn from sales tax revenues.

 

 


What We Know (and Don’t) About Those Congressional Budget Plans

March 25, 2015

I feel I should say something about the Republican House and Senate budget plans, even if a bit late to the pile-on. They are, after all, frameworks for policies that would do grievous harm to people in poverty.

Not up front about this, however. They’re larded with deceptive rhetoric, silent on crucial details and dishonest about revenues. Fortunately, progressive experts have dug into the plans from various angles.

So we know, for example, that the plans purport to balance the budget within 10 years, but wouldn’t. They seem to only because both the House and Senate relied on dynamic scoring models built on the discredited notion that tax cuts will miraculously increase revenues.

That, in and of itself, is a good thing because actually achieving balance so soon would, at the very least, slow our prolonged economic recovery.

What’s not at all a good thing is that the plans move toward balance entirely through spending cuts — about $5.5 trillion in the more radically-right House plan, not much less in the Senate’s.

And defense would not only be held harmless, but actually get a boost, though it’s cleverly designed so as not to affect the budget balance calculation or seem to breach the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

We know the plans would achieve large savings by denying low and moderate-income people the affordable health care they have now. Both would, of course, repeal the Affordable Care Act, including the federal funding that has enabled willing states and the District of Columbia to expand their Medicaid programs.

They would convert what remains of Medicaid into a block grant — or in the case of the Senate, two block grants. The more forthcoming House plan commits to folding the Children’s Health Insurance Program in.

But you won’t find the term “block grant” anywhere in the plans. We’ve instead got the more marketable — and obscure — “State Flexibility Fund” or the equivalent.

Same difference. Though the plans don’t say how the budget would replace the federal matches that now cover more than half states’ Medicaid costs, they do say that savings would total hundreds of billions over the first 10 years — $400 billion in the Senate plan and an even more staggering $913 billion in the House plan.

We also know that the plans would achieve significant additional savings through changes in other mandatory programs, i.e., those that don’t depend on annual appropriations. That’s all we know from the budget figures in the plans.

But the prosy part of the House budget plan reveals that it — like all the plans Congressman Paul Ryan produced while chairing the Budget Committee — would convert SNAP (the food stamp program) to another block grant, a.k.a State Flexibility Fund.

That would cut spending on the program by an estimated $125 billion, beginning in 2021, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. States would have the flexibility to cope with the funding crunch.

If they made across-the-board benefits cuts, recipients would lose, on average, $55 a month, according to CBPP’s estimates. If they instead made certain categories of recipients ineligible, as many as 12 million people would lose their benefits altogether.

No cuts to Pell grants for low-income college students. But the House plan — again, the more forthcoming — supposedly “makes the program permanently sustainable.” Translated, this means a 10-year freeze on the maximum a student can receive — $5,775 a year.

Don’t suppose I need to say that this is far less than the average costs of attending college. Don’t need to say that these costs can be expected to rise, especially because most states are balancing their budgets in part by hiking tuition.

How the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will divvy up the rest of the savings remains to be seen. Both the House and Senate plans apparently preserve (for real) the cap on non-defense discretionary spending, i.e., for programs whose funding hinges on annual appropriations.

But when we look ahead, we find that these programs would lose many billions more than the caps allow — $759 billion in the House plan and at least $236 billion in the Senate plan.

Put these together with the specified and unspecified cuts in mandatory programs and we come up the trillions cited above because the plans cut only non-defense programs. CBPP figures that more than two-thirds of the money would come from those that serve low-income — and in some cases, moderate-income — people.

Well, these plans aren’t going to result in a final budget that the President will sign. They’re still profoundly worrisome. Because whatever he does sign — and he will sign something — will surely leave key programs for low-income people far short of the funds needed to give them a secure safety net and opportunities to better their financial circumstances.

Even the budget we have now falls short of needs.

 

 


DC Labor Laws on the Books, But Weak or No Enforcement

March 23, 2015

“The law is on the books. Enforce it.” I heard my then-boss, U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairman Arthur Flemming, say this over and over again when the Reagan administration was insisting that Congress had to change major federal civil rights laws if it wanted them enforced as they’d always been.

Even with the best will in the world, however, an agency can’t ensure laws achieve what they’re supposed to if it doesn’t have enough money for staff. This seems to be in the case in the District of Columbia, judging from several Fair Budget Coalition recommendations.

FBC is again recommending additional funds to “implement and enforce” the District’s existing worker protection laws — a total of $3 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Somewhat over half would pay for more staff and administrative law judges to enforce compliance with the District’s minimum wage increase and expanded paid sick leave laws, plus some others intended to prevent wage theft, e.g., denying earned overtime pay.

But a modest $292,000 would support steps that must be taken before enforcement can kick in. As things stand now, two laws — the Protecting Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Unemployed Workers Anti-Discrimination Act — are basically still just words in electronic files.

The former requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers whose ability to perform their assigned tasks is limited by pregnancy, childbirth, related medical conditions or breastfeeding. No more denying pregnant workers enough bathroom breaks, demanding that they continue lifting heavy packages when their doctors have cautioned against that, etc.

The latter seeks to prevent jobless workers from remaining jobless just because that’s what they are.

The pregnant workers’ legislation is quite new. The timeframe for our Congressional overlords to disapprove it, which they didn’t, expired long about last Thanksgiving Day. But the prohibition against refusing to hire — or consider hiring — someone because s/he’s unemployed cleared the Congressional review period at the end of May 2012.

Yet the Office of Human Rights, which has responsibility for enforcing it, hasn’t proposed rules — let alone published final rules — to spell out what employers can and can’t do and how workers can seek remedies when they believe employers have done what they shouldn’t.

Its website doesn’t even acknowledge the law. Yet only OHR can enforce it because it denies workers the right to seek remedies through lawsuits.

Not the agency’s fault that it’s done nothing. The law conditioned implementation on “the inclusion of its fiscal effect in an approved budget and financial plan.” The Chief Financial Officer determined that the budget couldn’t cover it. That, however, was three years ago. So there’s been plenty of time to fill the gap.

This isn’t the first time the DC Council has passed progressive legislation and then neglected to make sure it was achieving its intent.

Back in 2010, the District’s auditor found that the Department of Employment Services hadn’t monitored publicly-financed projects to ensure that contractors filled at least 51% of new jobs created with District residents, as the First Source Act requires. Left to their own devices, most didn’t.

More to the point perhaps, DOES hadn’t issued final rules for the District’s Living Wage Act, which the Council passed in 2006. Nor did it get around to proposing rules for the amended law until after the auditor reported such findings as she’d been able to make — a time lag of at least a year, maybe more.

The Fenty administration told the auditor that it hadn’t moved forward because a provision in the original living wage law conditioned implementation and enforcement on annual appropriations. No appropriations forthcoming. So it’s likely that some unknown number of D.C. workers were underpaid.

Perhaps still are. The final rules provide for no enforcement unless workers or their representatives file formal complaints of violations. The burden is apparently on them, not DOES to monitor, investigate, document and so forth.

We everyday District residents read of laws the Council has passed to increase employment of our fellow residents, boost their wages and protect them from egregiously unfair treatment.

So it’s distressing that we have to learn from FBC — and ultimately from the Employment Justice Center, which proposed the labor law recommendations — that the responsible agencies aren’t fully and effectively enforcing the laws on the books.

Well, we know now. And so do the Mayor and DC Councilmembers. We have fine advocates here in the District, but I still wish we had Flemming pounding the table now.

 


Insight Gained From Trying to Contact Social Security

February 2, 2015

My husband Jesse’s death has been a learning experience for me in many ways. One thing I’ve learned is why so many Americans who don’t have principled objections to major federal programs hate “big government” — and how spending cuts can build support for more.

Checklists I’d been sent told me that I should notify the Social Security Administration of Jesse’s death so that it would stop deposits to his bank account. Foreseeing, as I now know I shouldn’t have, some impending fraud claim, I went to the SSA website, thinking I could notify the agency there. Wrong.

So I called the 800 number. Recorded messages telling me things I didn’t need to know, e.g., the new cost of living adjustment, the Medicare Part B premium. Then a lengthy Q&A with an interactive program. Then a message telling me my wait time would be 45 minutes, but that I could get a callback instead. Opted for that. No call.

So called again. Same routine. Had to hang up after close to 45 minutes to take other calls. Try again. Same results. Finally decided what I should do is get an appointment at the nearest SSA office. Can’t do that on the website either. And so …. Well, you know what.

I finally got to a live human being after about 50 minutes. She told me I could schedule a telephonic meeting. The first available appointment was nearly six weeks away. For  me, this is really no big deal. But what if I’d depended on Jesse for financial support and urgently needed the ongoing survivor benefits I’d have been entitled to?

Frustrations like those I experienced are directly traceable to inadequate funding that has put the squeeze on services for many years. SSA simply doesn’t have the budget for anything like the number of staff it needs.

This is also the case for the Internal Revenue Service, which may be able to answer only 43% of taxpayer calls this filing season — and for the lucky minority whose wait times pan out, only to answer the most basic questions.

No answers whatever for people who don’t file by April 15. No more personal help with tax returns for low-income, elderly and disabled filers either. Well, what do you expect when the agency’s budget, in real dollars, is about 17% less than in 2010.

“The way Congress has been handling the funding of the IRS, it’s as if it wants us to hate the agency,” Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary observes. Indeed.

SSA and IRS aren’t the only agencies short-staffed. Blogger Paul Waldman recently posted a pair of charts showing how the federal workforce has shrunk over time. The more telling shows that the number of federal employees per 100,000 residents has dropped by 43% since 1968.

Ramping up automation and other “efficiencies” can do only so much. Only people can, for example, staff the visitors centers in our national parks, protect the wildlife (and the visitors) and plow the snow off the roads so the parks are accessible.

Anyone who knows how angry residents get when streets aren’t swiftly plowed after a snowstorm can imagine how angry some 135,000 people were at our federal government when they learned they couldn’t get into Yellowstone National Park for two weeks after it was scheduled to open.

Chalk this up to budget cuts — including, but not limited to the across-the-board cuts that affected all federal agencies in 2013.

I could run out other examples, but I think the point is clear. The spending-slashers have created a feedback loop. We expect reasonably timely, responsive services, especially when critical needs are at stake.

We’re driven around the bend by faceless bureaucrats, like the administrative law judges who taken an average of 422 days to rule on appeals when claims for disability benefits are denied, as they often are. Others, also faceless who don’t even put veterans needing medical care on a waiting list.

Bodiless, mindless bureaucrats, like what Jesse and I used to call the metal person who put me through the drill before I could get into the queue of calls waiting  at SSA.

Whether such frustrations translate into self-defeating support for further cuts to specific agencies’ budgets isn’t altogether clear.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times, among others, perceives “a political motivation” in the case of SSA — specifically, that conservatives aim to make Social Security “less relevant” to everyday folks so they’ll be more willing to accept an alternative, e.g. private retirement savings accounts.

Maybe. What I’m more confident of is that unduly slow, insufficient and/or messed-up services help persuade Americans that the federal government is too damn big and ought to be retrenched.

That, of course, serves radically-right Congress members well, since they’d like nothing better than to pare off all but a few core functions, leaving the rest to state and local governments, private businesses, civil society organizations and individuals themselves.

Method in what seems the madness of forcing IRS staffing cuts that will cost the federal government at least $2 billion this year alone in taxes dodged or inadvertently not paid.


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