No Government Shutdown (Now), But Congress May Shut Out More From Affordable Housing

October 5, 2015

If the official poverty rate ticks down at the same pace it did last year, we won’t see it cut in half until 2040, the Coalition on Human Needs reports. Not even then if we have another recession, which, of course, we will.

What this tells us, CHN says, is that economic growth won’t reduce poverty fast enough. We need bigger investments in programs with a strong anti-poverty track record.

Doesn’t look as if bigger investments are in the cards. The Republican majorities in Congress insist that appropriations for non-defense programs total no more than the budget cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

What we may forget is that the cap — and caps going forward — were set after Congress cut appropriations by about $38 billion, thus lowering the baseline the caps were based on. So even if the non-defense cap were lifted by $37 billion, as the President proposed, funding would still be lower than in 2010.

Hard to know whether we will have a genuine budget for the upcoming fiscal year. We’ll have a short-term continuing resolution instead.

But not an ordinary CR because it doesn’t maintain program-by-program spending at the same level it’s been. It instead makes cuts in non-defense programs — a total of about $7 billion — so as to bring spending below the FY 2016 cap.

And we might not have even this if House Speaker John Boehner hadn’t resigned, freeing himself, it seems, to let the House vote on the CR, even though so many of his Republican colleagues signaled they’d balk that it couldn’t pass without Democrats.

So we won’t have a government shutdown. We’ll instead have the stage set for a showdown in early December — or sooner.

A more complex situation then because Congress will have to somehow deal with not only the expiring CR, but the expiration of nominally temporary tax breaks and the fact that the Treasury Department will have exhausted measures it can take to avert a default on the federal debt.

Some predict another budget deal like the one that pulled us back from the so-called fiscal cliff at the tail end of 2012. Others a year-long CR.

Assume that becomes the solution. Well, we know (or should) that even level funding doesn’t mean as many people served as well as they’ve been served.

Take Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers, for example. Actually, you probably can’t if you don’t already have a voucher — perhaps not even if you do.

We all know that rents generally rise — and have been rising faster in recent years. Utility costs are rising also. And they’re folded into what housing vouchers help pay for.

Incomes of households in the bottom tier of the affordability scale generally haven’t kept pace. So their share of rent, plus basic utilities — 30% of income — covers less. Each voucher then usually costs the agency that issues it more.

What this means is that funding for Housing Choice would have to increase each year just to maintain a steady state. But it hasn’t. Quite the contrary.

The across-the-board cuts in 2013 left a large majority of local housing agencies without funds to cover their share of rent for all the vouchers they’d issued.

By and large, they coped by holding back vouchers they’d otherwise have reissued when households that had them not longer qualified, e.g., because they’d moved out of the area or gained enough income to boost them over the eligibility cut-off.

Some pulled back vouchers they’d issued to people who hadn’t yet found apartments. At least one changed its standards, requiring voucher holders to either move to smaller units or come up with the money for rooms that were now “extra.”

And some actually shifted funds from vouchers to cope with other shortfalls, exacerbated, but not originating in the cuts — mainly under-funding for the program that covers the costs of maintaining and renovating public housing.

They could do this because they were part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work pilot, which essentially converted their federal housing assistance funding to a block grant.

But for a seemingly over-flexible, under-monitored MTW, about 63,000 more households would have had vouchers last year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

On the other hand, more probably had apartments in public housing than if the MTW agencies hadn’t shifted funds to keep units from becoming unlivable.

So the story’s a bit more complicated than direct cuts to the Housing Choice program. But choices Congress has made nevertheless account for the shrinking number of households that make rent affordable.

The across-the-board cuts ultimately denied about 100,000 households vouchers they’d otherwise have had. Congress later restored some of the lost funds — enough to renew all vouchers issued and put some back in circulation.

Yet the boosts in the last two budgets will still leave roughly 68,560 fewer households with vouchers than pre-sequestration, according to CBPP estimates (and my calculator). And there weren’t enough vouchers well before the Budget Control Act and aftermath.

Of course, the House and Senate might agree to an actual budget. So it’s worth a look at what could then arrive on the President’s desk. Will confine myself again to Housing Choice.

House funding for HUD would reverse the progress made toward restoring lost vouchers. The White House predicts a loss of 28,000 more.

Over on the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee says its bill would “continue assistance to all individuals and families served by both Section 8 and public housing.” The White House, however, contends that the funding level falls short of what would be needed to renew roughly 50,300 vouchers.

Distressing, to put it mildly, that folks who call the shots in Congress seem disposed to make a bad situation worse.

House Republicans Set to Promote Single Motherhood

August 3, 2015

Seems the House will vote next month on budgets for the agencies lumped together as Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Some increases, many cuts. Two of the latter would deny low-income women safe, reliable, affordable contraception.

There’s something extremely perverse about limiting women’s opportunities to postpone childbearing until they feel ready to fulfill — alone or with a spouse or partner — the heavy-duty responsibilities of motherhood.

Especially perverse, given all the expressed concern about single mothers, their dependency on welfare, how they’re breeding criminals, etc.

Labor-HHS-Education Overview

The House bill would cut total spending for the programs it includes by $3.7 billion. On top of cuts made since 2010, they’d have $29 billion (16%) less in real dollars, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Republicans claim they’ve got no choice because the Budget Control Act caps spending on domestic programs subject to annual appropriations.

They could, of course, have adjusted the cap — or done away with it altogether — by adopting a more balanced approach to deficit reduction, as the President’s proposed budget would and Senate Democrats seem ready to insist on.

Cap aside, it’s still the case that the Appropriations Committee foisted the largest dollar cut — and the second largest percent cut — on Labor-HHS-Education.

Predictable Defunding of Health Care Reform

HHS would take a $216 million hit, as compared to its current budget. By far and away the largest part reflects a near-total block on spending related to the Affordable Care Act — a significant source of expanded health insurance coverage for birth control, as well as other preventive services.

Were the budget to become law, which it won’t, HHS could no longer operate health insurance exchanges in the 34 states that haven’t created their own — or in three others that use its infrastructure.

Hard to see how this wouldn’t mean loss of the subsidies that make health insurance affordable for low and moderate-income people — or the related measures that limit out-of-pocket costs for health care.

Low-income individuals and families could also wind up without affordable health care, including no-cost family planning services, because the Republicans’ bill effectively bars HHS from covering most of the costs of newly-eligible people in states that have expanded their Medicaid programs.

Hammering another nail into the coffin, the House bill would prohibit HHS from enforcing certain consumer protections.

These are intended to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher premiums, based on health conditions or gender. They also require most companies to cover birth control, as well as numerous other preventive services at no extra charge.

Renewed Direct Attack on Family Planning Services

The Labor-HHS-Education bill would zero out funding for Title X of the Public Health Service Act — the source of grants to nonprofits and public agencies that provide free or low-cost family planning and certain other preventive services, e.g., screenings for sexually-transmitted diseases and for cervical and breast cancer.

They can’t use the funds for abortions. But earlier zero-funding efforts leave no doubt that House Republicans intend to cripple Planned Parenthood, which, as we all know, does perform abortions, using privately-donated funds and, in some limited cases, funds it can claim from Medicaid.

Now, I’m hardly the first to observe that if you object to abortions, then you should want women to have the option of effective, affordable birth control.

For women (and men) with incomes below the poverty line, Title X-funded services, including contraception, must, in most cases, be free. Somewhat over 70% of Title X family planning clients qualified in 2013, the latest year we’ve got official figures for.

Folding in the near-poor, we see that defunding Title X would jeopardize family planning and other reproductive health services for more than 4 million people, mostly women.

Roughly 3.5 million of them either began or continued using some form of contraception as a result of their last visit to a Title X center. Some who didn’t were pregnant or wanted to be.

Anti-Anti-Poverty Choice

Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill has persuasively argued that encouraging and enabling women to deliberately choose motherhood, rather than just “drifting” into it is a more realistic poverty prevention strategy than the patently unsuccessful efforts to promote marriage.

The end result would be fewer poor single mothers — thus fewer children growing up in poverty, with all the disadvantages that entails. Fewer women forced to compromise education and career goals too. Fewer at risk of depression and perhaps abuse.

Yet LARCs (long-acting, reversible contraceptives) — the surest protections against unplanned pregnancies — can reportedly cost as much as $1,000, counting only one followup visit after the initial insertion procedure.

That’s a formidable barrier for low-income women — or rather, would be without effectively enforced ACA requirements, expanded Medicaid coverage and family planning services covered by Title X.

What Next?

It’s doubtful that the final budget for the upcoming year will deny all funds to Title X. The Senate’s Labor-HHS-Education bill — still in an earlier stage than the House bill — would allocate $257.8 million to the program.

This, however, would represent a cut of roughly $27.8 million. Even level funding would almost surely mean less available for services because program costs rise, much as our own living costs do.

What next year’s budget will look like is anybody’s guess, especially because the President has said he’ll veto any spending bill that reflects the caps.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans — not quite all, however — have decided to make a cheap political gesture, before the pseudo-scandal stales, by denying federal funds of any sort to Planned Parenthood — the largest of our nonprofit family planning providers.

“[H]ard to see other clinics stepping in to fill the gap,” Vox health care blogger Sarah Kliff remarks. Indeed. We probably won’t see that sort of gap, however — at least, not right away.

But we won’t see enough funding for affordable family planning and other preventive healthcare services either.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Senate Labor-HHS-Education bill has cleared the full Appropriations Committee. So it is as far along as the House bill.



Too Soon to Lock in DC Tax Cuts

June 25, 2015

Life is full of surprises, they say. So is the District of Columbia’s budget. I’m referring here to the Budget Support Act, the package of legislation that’s paired with the spending bill.

Turns out that the BSA the DC Council will soon take its second required vote on could trigger tax cuts before either the Mayor or the Council knows how much the District will need to spend just to keep services flowing — let alone how much it should spend.

Whoever knew? Doubtful all Councilmembers did, since Chairman Mendelson distributed the final BSA shortly before the first vote. Other interested parties surely didn’t because it wasn’t published.

And one would have needed time to figure out what the Chairman had done because his bill doesn’t spell out how it would change trigger provisions enacted as part of last year’s BSA.

Well, we know now — or could, thanks to a heads-up from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a DC for Democracy post that adds some angles.

The basic issue here — though not the only one — is when tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission should go into effect. Both the original BSA provision and the new version require a revenue projection higher than an earlier one.

Tax cuts wouldn’t all kick in at once, since that would immediately throw the budget out of balance. Last year’s BSA ranked them in priority order. The ranking would stay the same. But that’s as far as the parallels go.

Set aside for a moment the egregious lack of transparency. What’s wrong with the latest plan for triggering tax cuts based on rosier revenue projections? Three big things.

Tax Cuts Take Priority Over Spending Needs

The new plan would dedicated all of the projected revenue increase to tax cuts, rather than the excess over a threshold set by the current BSA.

And it would do that before the Chief Financial Officer had estimated the costs of sustaining existing programs in the upcoming fiscal year. These tend to rise for various reasons, as DCFPI notes.

Beyond that, we’re not spending as much as we should in a number of areas — affordable housing and homeless services, to name just two. This year’s budget makes some progress on both. But further progress will stall if the Mayor and Council can’t allocate the revenues needed.

Without them, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the single largest source of financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — could have less next fiscal year, since half of the $100 million it has now reflects a one-time appropriation.

The next steps envisioned in the latest strategic plan to end homelessness in the District also hinge on further investments. For example, the plan envisions year-over-year increases in permanent supportive housing for families, plus some rapid re-housing vouchers extended past the usual one-year limit.

It also calls for some indefinite-term vouchers earmarked for families and single adults who can’t afford housing when they don’t need intensive supportive services any more or come to the end of their rapid re-housing extensions.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll add that we’re likely to have homeless families until the Mayor and Council significantly increase Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which now, at best, leave a family of three at about 26% of the federal poverty line.

More generally, setting automatic triggers for a series of tax cuts denies both the Mayor and Council a chance to weigh priorities during budget seasons. Those tax cuts, recall, will mean relatively less in revenues not only next year, but every year — unless they’re repealed.

A whole lot harder politically to repeal a tax cut than to defer it until it won’t preempt spending that will do more good for more people than reducing tax obligations for some.

Cuts in the Offing Tilt Toward Well-Off Taxpayers

The Tax Revision Commission made nearly a dozen recommendations for cuts — a mixed bag if you believe that individuals and businesses should contribute to the general welfare according to how well they’re faring.

The Council adopted a couple that ease tax burdens for low and moderate-income residents. But those ranked highest in the BSA now don’t reflect a consistent preference for a progressive tax structure — far from it.

The second listed, for example, would reduce the tax rate on income between $350,000 and $1 million. Next on the list — and again in fifth place — are cuts in the franchise taxes that businesses pay.

The threshold for any tax on estates would increase to $2 million before filers would get larger standard deductions — the option virtually all low-income taxpayers choose because they’d pay more by itemizing.

Bigger Revenue Losses Than Recommended

The Tax Revision Commission recommended revenue increases to offset the losses resulting from its recommended cuts. The Council took a pass on two. The new BSA would do the same, forgoing $67 million, DCFPI reports.

So there’d be a straitjack on revenue growth — possibly indeed future shortfalls. The District has had these before — the latest only just remedied by savings found.

What the shortfalls tell us is that revenue projections are inherently iffy — the more so as they estimate collections beyond the upcoming quarter of a fiscal year. That’s just how forecasts are. Ditto projections of spending needs.

Who, for example, can foresee a prodigious snowstorm, requiring millions more to clear the roads than budgeted? Who, at this point, can predict how much crucial programs will lose due to federal spending cuts?

So it seems unnecessarily risky to plow ahead with tax cuts before next year’s budget is even on the drawing board. And if past is prologue, programs that help low-income residents are what the BSA would actually put at risk.

UPDATE: I’ve learned, from reliable sources, that the excess revenue threshold in the current BSA applied only to the forecast used as the basis for next fiscal year’s budget. Under the current law, tax cuts would kick in with any higher revenue forecast, but not until next February. The Mayor could, if she chose, ask the Council to approve using the extra for unmet needs instead.

So what I wrote about the current BSA is misleading, but my basic point that the new BSA would trigger cuts prematurely stands.



House Makes HUD Funding Bill Worse

June 18, 2015

Last week, House Republicans, joined by three Democrats, passed a bill to fund the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s programs in the upcoming fiscal year.

I’ve already blogged on how it shortchanges key programs for homeless and other low-income people — and leaves the National Housing Trust Fund with no money at all. Amendments made the final bill worse by undermining HUD’s efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act.

One amendment that squeaked through would stall the agency’s belated push to “affirmatively further” the purposes of the law.

As I recently said, HUD has proposed rules that would reduce neighborhood segregation and strengthen actions against practices that deny racial and ethnic minorities, as well as others subject to discrimination equal opportunities to rent and buy. Most House Republicans — and no Democrats — voted to block them.

Another amendment would deny HUD funds to support nonprofits that supplement its enforcement efforts — for example, by sending testers, e.g., black and white, to apply for an apartment or a mortgage loan and filing complaints when they detect discrimination.

Still another would prohibit HUD from using funds to enforce a rule it’s issued that spells out its interpretation of how the FHA prohibits certain policies and practices that have discriminatory effects.

All but 13 Republicans — and again, no Democrats — decided HUD should have to prove that public and private-sector entities, e.g., zoning boards, mortgage companies, intended to discriminate.

This comes hard on the heels of a similar amendment to the bill that would fund the Justice Department, plus agencies responsible for science and commerce.

Documenting intentional discrimination is extremely difficult, as you might imagine. How often do you have, say, a zoning board on record saying, ” We’ll prohibit apartment buildings here because that will keep blacks out”?

This is one of the reasons that virtually all federal court rulings during the last four decades have upheld the effects standard House Republicans would prohibit both HUD and Justice from using.

Well, the HUD funding bill isn’t going to become law. And the Commerce-Justice-Science bill probably won’t either. It’s doubtful the responsible Senate committees will fold the amendments into their funding bills — some maybe, but not all.

It’s also doubtful the full Senate will have a chance to vote on the bills any time soon. The Senate Democratic leadership is reportedly marshalling its forces to block substantive votes on any and all bills that reflect the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act.

And all will (or seem to) because both the House and Senate budget plans adopt them, with a clever workaround for Defense.

The President’s got the Democrats’ back — or perhaps they’ve got his. He’s said he’ll veto any appropriations bill that adheres to the caps. Even if Republicans all hang together, they don’t have enough votes in either the House or Senate to override a veto.

So even if too many Senate Democrats defect from the block-all strategy, the HUD funding bill will ultimately become a bargaining chip in negotiations to avert a massive government shutdown.

Why am I bothering with the pernicious amendments then? Well, we’re coming up on elections, as anyone not living in a cave knows. What may seem futile, politically-motivated gestures now won’t necessarily be in 2017.

And it won’t take an amendment to the FHA to undermine the law’s intent. Nor so-called budget riders, i.e., backdoor policy changes tacked onto appropriations bills. We know from experience that if an administration doesn’t like an intentionally broad civil rights law, it can minimize its reach.

A ProPublica report tells us how Nixon prevented his HUD Secretary (former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dad) from using the agency’s grant-making authority to desegregate predominantly white neighborhoods.

That’s not the only strategy administrations have used to minimize the effectiveness of the FHA. For example, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights refused HUD’s requests to prosecute violators of the law unless the agency had clear evidence of an intent to discriminate.

And then as now, HUD couldn’t go to court on its own. So federal litigation to enforce the FHA ground to a halt. The House Republican majority apparently wants to set the clock back.

Like I said, the House appropriations bills aren’t going to become law. But they’re a clear warning, should one need it, that what’s happened before could happen again.

And, as before, an administration could deny not only fair housing, but other opportunities, e.g., for a decent, appropriate education, employment, timely health care, to racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and others our civil rights laws are supposed to protect.


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.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 214 other followers