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.


DC Coalition Calls for Some Spending Increases, But They Could Save Money … and Lives

January 29, 2015

A new mayor in the District of Columbia. New appointments to senior administrative positions. Three new Councilmembers — and two more to come.

Unexpected challenges for them all because the current fiscal year’s budget seems likely to be short about $83.3 million. It could be considerably more if the District decides to, at along last, settle its overtime dispute with the firefighters.

And there’s a bigger potential budget gap for next fiscal year — perhaps $161.3 million, according to the Chief Financial Officer’s latest estimate of the costs of District agency operations.

Into this still-fluid environment comes the Fair Budget Coalition, with its annual recommendations for (what else?) a budget and related policies that are fair to all District residents. “Fair,” as its mission statement says, means policies, including budgets, that “address poverty and human needs.”

As I’ve remarked before, FBC’s recommendations, worthy as they all may be, tend to be difficult to wrap up in a blog post because they’re a compendium of top priorities identified by working groups that focus on diverse issue areas — housing and homelessness, workforce development and income supports, etc.

So, at least for now, just a few observations.

Everything Is Connected To Everything Else

Though FBC offers diverse recommendations, they fit together, as all speakers on the panel the coalition hosted on report release day emphasized.

For example, if you’re homeless, free health care — and prescription drugs — won’t keep you from suffering life-threatening emergencies because it’s hard to follow a doctor’s recommendations when you’re out on the streets. And impossible, of course, to keep medications refrigerated, though you know some won’t be effective if you don’t.

Thus, said panelist Maria Gomez, the founder and CEO of Mary’s Center, “Health care will not help without other investments” — in the immediate case, obviously affordable housing. Perhaps other public benefits also, e.g., nutrition assistance, transportation subsidies.

A Budget Gap Doesn’t Make Spending Recommendations Moot

FBC’s recommendations seem to involve about $45.2 million in additional spending, plus some unspecified amounts, at least one of which would add to the tab. Some of the total could be offset by a pair of tax recommendations, however.

One would make the local income tax system “more progressive,” i.e., shift more of the tax burden to high-earners. The other would raise the property tax rate on “high value” homes and homes that the owners don’t live in for most of the year.

No revenue estimates for these, however — at least, not yet. More importantly, I’m inclined to doubt that the Bowser administration and the Council would revisit tax reform at this point, since the current budget adopts key recommendations that emerged from the Tax Revision Commission’s studies, debates and ultimate compromises.

This doesn’t mean that the District simply can’t afford the spending FBC recommends, budget gap notwithstanding. For one thing, the gap, large as it may seem, is only 2.3% of the projected FY 2016 budget.

For another, it’s far from certain that everything the District now spends money on is the best investment of our taxpayer dollars.

Take, for example, the Film Incentive Fund, beloved by Councilmember Vincent Orange. We’ve got research showing that the tax subsidies and other incentives used to entice TV and movie companies to film in the District don’t even pay for themselves, let alone generate additional revenues.

Nor, according to studies elsewhere, do they create steady, full-time work for residents. Not much work at all, in fact.

Just an example of where one might look for funds to, say, actually improve employment prospects for low-income residents. The modest investment FBC recommends to create career pathways for D.C. adults without basic literacy and math skills probably would.

Connections Have Budget Implications

The Mayor and Council don’t need to short worthwhile programs in order to shore up others because investing more in some yields high returns in savings and/or revenue increases. Here’s a pair of related examples — often cited.

FBC recommends an additional $12 million to expand permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently. Studies in other communities have found that PSH not only prolongs and improves lives, but usually costs less than leaving chronically homeless people on the streets or sheltering them overnight.

Likewise, vouchers that enable homeless and at-risk families to afford market-rate housing and other vouchers that help cover the operating costs of affordable housing not only provide families with a safe, stable place to live — and thus a healthier environment and a secure platform for working or preparing for work.

These indefinite-term vouchers also cost less than a third of what the District spends, per family, on shelter at the notoriously awful DC General — or the hotels that it’s again constrained to use as shelter because there’s no room left at DCG.

No room left because the Department of Human Services can’t move enough families out fast enough to make room for all the newly-homeless families entitled to shelter. While DHS had reportedly achieved a so-called exit rate of 64 families per month, only 37 families exited the emergency shelter system during the last four weeks we’ve got (unpublished) reports on.

More locally-funded housing vouchers, especially the kind families can use in the private market as long as they have to would swiftly free up shelter space and/or keep families from needing it.

Cost-savings include not only shelter, but the collateral costs of harms associated with homelessness, especially for children. These include, but are not limited to health, behavioral and academic problems that can ultimately diminish earning power — and thus tax revenues. More immediate costs — some justified, some perhaps not — include interventions by the child welfare agency.

By these lights, FBC’s recommendation for an additional $10 million in locally-funded housing vouchers, split evenly between the first and second type, makes sense from a fiscal, as well as a moral — or if you prefer, humanitarian — perspective.

 


If You Don’t Like the Answer, Change the Question

January 12, 2015

A recent New York Times op-ed warns that the Republican leadership will instruct the (up till now) nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to use dynamic scoring when it estimates the revenue impacts of changes to the tax code.

The House of Representatives, in fact, passed a rule last week that requires not only CBO, but the also nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation to use dynamic scoring for all “major legislation” — and to provide just one estimate, rather than the range they’ve customarily provided for large-scale economic effects.

We’ve had rumors of this radical change ever since Republicans seemed like to gain control of the Senate, as well as hold onto their House majority. Fueling them was the expectation, proved correct, that Congressman Paul Ryan, who’s a fan of dynamic scoring, would become head of the House tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

And we’ve had warnings of the consequences for even longer. Because dynamic scoring has been around for quite awhile.

How CBO and JCT score legislation might seem far removed from policies that affect poor and near-poor people in America. But it isn’t because dynamically-scored tax cuts can make prospective revenues seem greater than they’ll actually be.

Congress can then more easily make tax cuts that will drive the deficit upward — and so set the stage for spending cuts (except for defense) more severe than even those we’ve seen.

Brief explanation from a non-economist who believes she’s read enough to grasp the basics.

How CBO and JCT Score Legislation

When bills with any potential revenue impact are proposed, they’re sent to CBO for a score, i.e., estimates, over a 10-year period, of how the legislative changes will increase or reduce federal revenues. JCT gets involved when the bills are tax-related.

As the op-ed author, Professor Ed Kleinbard explains, the experts try to predict how people will respond and to fold the results of those responses into the scores.

Say, for example, some Congress members want to raise the gas tax. CBO and/or JCT would factor in the likelihood that some people would drive less. Buy more fuel-efficient cars too perhaps. And so the revenue estimates wouldn’t be as high as a straightforward addition of the extra paid at the pump if drivers kept buying as much gas as they do now.

Congressman Ryan is thus pulling the wool over our eyes when he claims that the current scoring method fails to “take into consideration behavioral changes or economic effects.” Ditto the far right-wing Heritage Foundation’s tax and policy guru, who asserts that the current method is “static.”

How Dynamic Scoring Differs

Economic models that produce dynamic scores include estimated impacts on the entire economy and the revenue consequences thereof.

In the case of tax cuts for individuals, they’d factor in broad assumptions about what people would do, e.g., work more because they could keep more of what they earned (or less for the same reason), buy and/or invest more, which could ramp up production, create jobs and, therefore, boost income tax collections.

Similar sorts of assumptions for business tax cuts.

What the models don’t do, Kleinbard says, is factor in the consequences of tax cuts that don’t trigger spending cuts or tax hikes later. Nor, he adds, do they include the negative effects on economic output that would result from less government spending.

CBO actually does sometimes estimate “feedback effects” on the overall economy. But, it says, they tend to be “small relative to the direct budgetary effects.” And, as I said above, it never offers a single macroeconomic impact estimate.

Not what the Republican tax-cutters want. As Citizens for Tax Justice says, they’re looking for something like the oft-debunked Laffer curve, which has been used to argue that tax cuts pay for themselves.

Implications of the One-Estimate Rule

All the responsible experts I’ve read emphasize the iffiness of dynamic scoring. Understandably, because as Kleinbard says, the models economist use involve a lot of assumptions about who will do what if taxes rise or fall.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has been bird-dogging the issue, points out that JCT produced eight different estimates of the dynamic effects of just-retired Congressman Dave Camp’s tax reform plan.

They ranged from $50 billion to $700 billion in additional revenues over the first 10 years — or from another perspective, a 16-fold difference between the lowest and highest estimates of the increase in the total value of goods and services produced.

And which do you suppose Camp cited? Which do you suppose Republicans tax-writers would use if presented with the options?

But under the House rule, they wouldn’t be. They’d get just one — and instead of, rather than in addition to the conventional score that’s provided the basis for revenue estimates up until now. But only when they thought it would support their plans, since they could easily evade the “major legislation” standard when it wouldn’t.

And very importantly, they wouldn’t necessarily get the explanations for dynamic scores, as they have up until now. Which means that we wouldn’t have them either.

The model that produced the estimate Camp touted assumed that Congress would prevent the deficit from soaring by cutting transfer payments, e.g., Social Security, unemployment insurance, SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

One way or the other, the dynamic scoring gambit will ultimately feed arguments for cutting social insurance, safety net benefits and/or other programs that are properly viewed as investments, e.g., in science, infrastructure, public education. Like as not, all of the above.

That, Kleinbard concludes, “is what lies inside the Trojan horse of dynamic scoring.” And it’s why we everyday citizens ought to care about what seems so arcane.


Some Good Things That Happened This Month … and Some Bad

December 22, 2014

Well, you know the big good thing, of course. We didn’t have another government shutdown. And we’ve got a budget that will defer further Republican efforts to gut domestic spending until work on next year’s budget begins. Only a brief respite, however, from efforts to block the President’s recently-announced immigration enforcement policies.

You know some of the big bad things too, I suppose. Banks will again be allowed to invest federally-insured deposits — your savings and mine — in some risky derivatives, e.g., bets on the creditworthiness of borrowers.

And very wealthy people will be allowed to donate a whole lot more to the national political parties — a far less risky investment in election results and policy decisions that serve their interest.

For us who live in the District of Columbia, the override of our vote to legalize small-scale marijuana possession and production is a big bad thing too — if not in itself, then because it’s a grating reminder that Congress can meddle in our local affairs whenever it chooses.

Other good and bad things happened this month that didn’t get as much media attention. Here are four that follow through on issues I’ve been blogging about.

Funding for the National Housing Trust Fund

The National Housing Trust Fund will, at long last, have some money for grants to support the development and preservation of affordable housing — mostly rental housing for the very lowest-income households.

Brief review of the history for those who’ve lost track.

When Congress created the Fund, in 2008, it designated a certain percent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s new business as the main revenue stream. Well, you know what happened to them when the housing market tanked at about the same time.

Despite the recovery, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which took over their affairs, preserved its freeze on their contributions to the Fund.

We’ve had a series of legislative proposals to create another revenue stream. Nothing’s come of any of them — or of the one-time financing the President has included in his proposed budgets.

Earlier this month, FHFA told Fannie and Freddie to begin transferring money to the Fund, as the law that created it envisioned. Hardly the be-all and end-all for the acute shortage of housing that affordable for extremely low-income people, but every bit helps.

A Boost for High-Quality, Affordable Child Care

The budget package Congress just passed includes an additional $75 million for the recently updated and improved Child Care and Development Block Grant. The increase will surely help, though, as CLASP says, far more will be needed.

States will have to spend more to carry out their mandated responsibilities, as my overview of the new block grant law noted. They’ll need even more funds to reverse the downward trend in the number of children with CCDBG-subsidized child care — fewer in 2012 than in any year since 1998.

But again, every bit helps. And it’s encouraging to see continuing bipartisan support for high-quality child care that’s affordable for low-income families, as it surely isn’t without a subsidy.

Another Funding Cut for the IRS

The just-passed budget package cut funding for the Internal Revenue Services by $346 million, leaving the agency with less, in real dollars, than in any year since 2000, when it had fewer tax returns to process and fewer responsibilities as well.

This is a good thing if you’re anxious about having your tax returns audited. Not a good thing if you want an IRS representative to answer questions so you can file an accurate return.

And a very bad thing indeed if you’re worried about insufficient funding for non-defense programs, including those intended to provide both opportunities and a safety net for low-income individuals and families.

Or, for that matter, if you’re worried about the deficit. And we who care about these programs should be, since it’s been used to justify harmful spending cuts, including, but not limited to those Congress has already passed.

Because less money for the IRS means less money to offset spending. The Treasury Department estimates that every $1 spent on enforcement yields a $6 return in revenues collected. Citizens for Tax Justice cites considerably higher ROI figures.

The latest funding cut seems likely to further reduce the number of audits the IRS conducts — especially the potentially high-yielding, complex audits of high-income individuals and big businesses.

Thus, says sharp-witted economist/blogger Jared Bernstein, the budget cut is “a way to cut taxes without explicit tax cuts.” And tax cuts without offsetting revenue-raisers mean a shrinking pot of money for the already-squeezed non-defense share of the budget.

Another Victory for the White Potato

Buried deep in the budget package, we find a provision that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add white potatoes to the list of foods that states must and can include in their own WIC packages, i.e., what low-income mothers of young children can buy with their WIC coupons or the equivalent.

The coupons are supposed to supplement the family’s diet with nutrients it might otherwise not get enough of. So the list includes foods like whole-grain bread, low-fat dairy products and fruits and vegetables. These reflect recommendations by experts at the Institute of Medicine.

The IOM panel did not recommend white potatoes because, in its view, mothers and their young children already ate quite enough of them. The potato industry loudly protested. And Congress members from potato-growing states swiftly launched a series of maneuvers to insert white potatoes into the WIC list.

Now they’ve succeeded — a first-time-ever successful effort to override the scientific judgment the WIC list reflects. Not, however, the first time Congressional potato champions have successfully interfered with dietary guidelines for federally-subsidized meals.

Further proof, were any needed, that bipartisan isn’t always better.

NOTE: I’m painfully conscious that I’ve left out some noteworthy good things — and some bad as well. What would you add?

 


HUD Budget Bill Shortchanges Homeless and Affordable Housing Programs

May 29, 2014

The DC Housing Authority figures it will need $1.3 billion to preserve all the public housing units it operates. It’s not expecting anything like that any time soon, as Dena Levitz at The Atlantic reports.

In fact, its share of what Congress provides for public housing development and maintenance is currently about $11 million less than in 2000. And it’s short on funds for operating costs too.

At the same time, DCHA has an affordable housing waiting list so long that it decided to close it somewhat over a year ago.

This reflects an acute shortage of federal funds not only for public housing, but for vouchers, including the kind that extremely low-income people can use to help pay market rate rents.

These shortages help explain the very high number of homeless people in the District, though they’re certainly not the only factor. We must also look to soaring housing costs and inadequate local funding for affordable housing programs.

These aren’t problems for the District alone. New York City, for example, had more than 64,000 homeless people during last year’s one-night count. There too, low-income residents face skyrocketing rents, relatively stagnant incomes, a voucher shortage and public housing in disrepair.

A nationwide study conducted four years ago estimated a $26 billion backlog in public housing capital needs. And that was before the Budget Control Act tightened the screws on federal spending — in part through sequestration.

Well, the December 2013 budget deal provided some temporary relief from sequestration. Non-defense discretionary programs, i.e., those that depend on annual appropriations, have $9.2 billion more for the upcoming fiscal year.

Yet key programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are in trouble. Homeless assistance grants and major affordable housing programs stand to lose $510 million, in inflation-adjusted dollars, under the bill the House Appropriations Committee approved last week.

The subcommittee for HUD and Transportation Department appropriations got $1.8 billion more than it had to work with last year. But this was more than offset by a projected $3 billion or so reduction in revenues from mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration.

The subcommittee chairman says, “Like appropriators do, we made choices.” They’ll force some very tough choices on state and local agencies — and setbacks for the homeless and other low-income people they serve.

Here are some of the specifics, summarized from a new Center on Budget and Policy Priorities brief.

Housing Choice vouchers. The 2013 across-the-board cuts forced agencies to reduce the number of households receiving rental assistance through these vouchers by an estimated 72,000 nationwide.

This year’s budget provided enough money to restore about half. But the House appropriations bill could more than undo the improvement, leaving 12,000 fewer low-income households with vouchers than before.

The problem here is partly that vouchers issued to veterans under a separate program no longer have their own funding stream and so would have to be renewed out of the overall Housing Choice budget.

That would leave agencies without sufficient funds to cover expected rent and utility cost increases for all vouchers now in use.

So they can again cut back on vouchers for non-veterans. Or they can shift the cost increases to voucher holders by freezing the value of the subsidies. One of those tough choices.

Note that we’re talking only about preserving the rental assistance Housing Choices has recently provided — not about addressing the needs of 11.3 million households that are probably paying more than half their income for rent, including at least 50,150 in the District alone.

Public housing capital investments. The House appropriations bill cuts the under-funded public housing capital fund by $100 million, leaving DCHA and other housing authorities with only half the funds they need to cover new development and renovation needs.

Public housing operations. Not enough funding for public housing operations either — about  86% of what HUD said was needed.

Agencies can cope with the shortfall in various ways, e.g., by cutting back on routine maintenance, passing on more of their utilities costs to residents, exercising their discretion to impose a $50 minimum rent on the very poorest families. More tough choices.

Homeless assistance grants. The House bill level-funds homeless assistance grants, rejecting the Obama administration’s request for additional funds to support 37,000 new units of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people.

It’s not clear that the $2.1 billion in the House bill would even be enough to sustain all the PSH units supported by federal funds, since it would leave at least some grant recipients with less.

What is clear is that the House bill — in this area, as well as others — dumps responsibility for a major national problem on state and local governments and on nonprofits, whose resources are already stretched thin.

HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS) grants. A particular special needs population would lose out under another part of the House bill. Funds that help state and local agencies provide housing for people living with HIV/AIDS would be cut by more than 8%.

That would leave this relatively small, but vital program with less than it had after sequestration — and so less able than ever to meet the needs of more than 145,000 vulnerable people who reportedly need housing assistance.

This isn’t the whole story — and happily not the end. The Senate Appropriations Committee has just decided how to parcel out funds among its subcommittees. And Transportation-HUD has about $2.4 billion more than its House counterpart had to work with.

Now let’s see what it does.

 

 

 


DC General Family Shelter in Councilmember’s Bull’s-Eye

May 5, 2014

One of those interminable hearings on the proposed budget for the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services. A list of 81 witnesses, not counting DHS Director David Berns, whose testimony was deferred.

Many issues teed up — most, though not all related to homeless services. No way to wrap them up in a blog post. One, however, raised a new red flag.

Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the Human Services Committee, insisted that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, be closed by year’s end.

He wants to force the District to “marshal the will … and the resources” by putting a mandate to this effect in the Budget Support Act, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper reports.

Graham returned to this notion over and over again — and attempted (unsuccessfully) to garner advocates’ support.

His lead-off witness put a plank in the platform with observations and some survey results — all confirming that DC General is an awful place. Hot water only some of the time, rats, roaches and, as one current resident testified, bedbugs that caused her daughter’s face to swell up with infection.

It’s “a dead building,” Graham said, quoting past testimony by Berns. No point then in putting any money into making it somewhat more habitable.

And even if it were, it would still be an out-sized facility — “a small city” of homeless families, each with only a single room to live in.

No one, so far as I know, believes that DC General is a perfectly okay place to shelter homeless families when they’d otherwise have no safe place to stay. Some doubts, in fact, as to whether it is safe — raised most recently by the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd.

The issue is rather whether the District should close DC General before it can open enough more suitable shelter units to meet the need. Graham clearly believes this is the only way to ensure it will ever open them.

He cites the Mayor’s initiative to rapidly re-house 500 homeless families by mid-July. That, he says, would leave only about 100 families in DC General.

So there’d be vacant units — assuming, as he apparently does, that the initiative succeeds and accepting, as he does, the Mayor’s intent to keep them vacant for as long as he can. They’d still eventually be filled, Graham foresees, unless the shelter is shut down.

What to do then with the 100 or more families — and the who knows how many who will seek shelter as soon as the weather turns cold enough to trigger their legal right to protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions?”

Graham would temporarily shelter them in hotels, using money saved by not operating DC General.

This is wholly contrary to the approach DHS plans to take. Berns, recall, believes that homeless families left doubled-up situations once they knew they’d be put up in a hotel, instead of DC General.

It’s also quite different from the approach envisioned in the “roadmap” that 20 leading advocacy and service provider organizations released the day of the hearing.

This is the second time this year that advocates and service providers have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands because the Gray administration either won’t or can’t develop and carry out a plan to ensure that all homeless D.C. families have a safe, decent place to stay — and sufficient help to make their time there brief.

Or both. On the won’t side, we can look at the Mayor’s proposed budget, which would effectively cut homeless family services by $11 million — 20% of what DHS has this year.

The first coalition effort was a multi-part strategy to address the immediate family shelter crisis. The “roadmap” is a more evolved version — goals, sub-goals and new cost estimates to move the District toward a significantly improved homeless family system.

That, of course, will include something other than DC General — apartment-style units in smaller buildings, scattered in different parts of the city. The coalition expects the overhaul to take several years, however, and so focuses on improved casework and other services for families who’ll be at DC General.

Not so many there perhaps — or any for so long, if other goals are met. But there will be “safe and adequate emergency shelter for families when they need it” — whatever the outdoor temperature.

Pressed to endorse immediate closure, Judith Sandalow, who heads the Children’s Law Project, demurred because “we haven’t seen a plan that will keep families safe.”

Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless was understandably unwilling to rely on “all the big ifs.” She envisions a process in which units at DC General will be closed as they’re replaced.

A crisis-creating measure like what Graham wants could set off a repeat of the “draconian measures” DHS resorted to this winter, she warned. These measures would mean shelter for families only on freezing-cold days and no shelter during the next severe cold snap unless they went through the whole application process all over again.

One can understand Graham’s impatience. DC General was initially supposed to be an interim solution. There’s been talk about closing it for some time. Yet the Mayor only very recently directed Berns and the Deputy Mayor for Human Services to develop a closure plan.

We’ve no reason to believe that the District can establish alternative shelters for hundreds of homeless families by year’s end — or that it will pick up the costs of hotel rooms for them whenever they’ve no safe place to stay.

We do have reasons to believe that some of those families will be boomeranging back because they can’t pay rent when their rapid re-housing subsidies expire.

So I can’t help wondering if Graham, who’ll be leaving the Council shortly, wants to make a bit of history, knowing he won’t have to deal with the fallout — or perhaps just go out swinging.

UPDATE: The DC Fiscal Policy Institute now has a petition asking Councilmembers to fund the reforms recommended in the roadmap. It’s a quick and easy way for those of you who live in the District to support sorely needed improvements in the homeless family system.

 

 


Mayor’s Budget Shortchanges Under-Educated DC Adults … and Their Kids

April 24, 2014

“We have jobs and we have people,” says DC Appleseed’s Deputy Director. “But the education people have doesn’t fit the jobs available.” The real problem, however, as she goes on to suggest, is the education that many people don’t have.

This isn’t a rerun of the oft-debunked skills gap myth — at least so far as the District of Columbia is concerned. The extraordinarily high high unemployment rates in the poorer parts of the city apparently reflect a lack of minimal education credentials — and skills they’re supposed to indicate.

About 60,000 residents 18 years and older lack a high school diploma or the equivalent. An even larger number “likely lack the basic … skills needed to succeed in training, postsecondary education and the workforce,” according to a new DC Appleseed report.

Of the deplorably few adults in programs supported by funds the Office of the State Superintendent of Education administers, more than half who weren’t learning English as a second language have consistently tested below 6th grade level.

This means they’re ineligible for any of the programs the Department of Employment Services makes available through an Individual Training Account and also for most of the programs offered by our local community college.

Even residents who test higher often fail the GED exams. Their pass rate in 2012 was 55.2% — the third lowest in the country. And the exams got tougher this year.

Yet more than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require some postsecondary education by 2020, according to the latest projections by experts at Georgetown University.

In short, as things stand now, we’re looking at a very large number of working-age residents whose chances of full-time, living-wage jobs are dismal.

And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve research indicating links between parents’ education (or lack of same) and their children’s success in school. On the downside, children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be illiterate themselves.

This isn’t only because poverty rates are highest among adults without a high school diploma or GED — well over 33% in the District for those 25 and older. But all the daily impacts of poverty, e.g., hunger, homelessness, stress, obviously play a part.

Plowing more money into the rest of the education system, as the Mayor proposes, won’t deliver the hoped-for bang for the buck if the basic education needs of parents are neglected, as DC Learns warned several years ago.

DC Appleseed’s report identifies a range of problems in the District’s approach to adult education — including, but not limited to inadequate funding.

It outlines steps toward a long-range solution — essentially, an integrated system that connects basic skills development to career pathways. The DC Council could lay the groundwork with the initial $2.5 million the report recommends.

But the Council should also increase funding for the adult education programs we have now — both to serve more residents and to support better results.

I wish I could tell you what the Mayor’s budget proposes. But it’s characteristically opaque — partly, but not entirely because of the fragmentation DC Appleseed documents.

This much I’ve been able to parse.

The handful of charter schools that provide adult education would get more per pupil, as would the two regular public schools that do.

They’d still get less per pupil than what schools would get for any other type of student. And the new extra weight that’s supposed to boost funds for schools with students who’ve been designated “at risk” won’t apply, though some of the adults surely meet the same criteria, e.g., eligibility for SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

OSSE would get less for the adult education grants it provides. The proposed budget indicates a cut of about $3.8 million. This apparently reflects the fact that the Department of Employment Services won’t be transferring funds, as it did this fiscal year.

The Fair Budget Coalition had recommended that the baseline budget for adult education, i.e., the estimated costs of preserving current services, include these funds — a $5.5 million addition, according to FBC.

Hard to believe that the Mayor and his people couldn’t have found the money. They’ve instead put $3 million for adult literacy on the list of items to be funded if revenues prove higher than projected.

Let’s just say this is a mere gesture, since it would take $59.8 million to fund the priorities ranked higher. Setting this pie-in-the-sky aside, the total requested for all the programs that, in one way or the other, address the adult basic skills deficit might serve more residents than in Fiscal 2013.

But they then served at most about 8,000, according to DC Appleseed. That’s a far cry from meeting the need.

 


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