How Imperfect Can the Family Shelter Plan Be and Still Be Good Enough?

April 21, 2016

We’re often cautioned not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Bowser administration’s selection of sites for new family shelters raises a question, however. How imperfect can something be for us to still say it’s good enough?

It’s a question that’s divided District residents and apparently DC Council members. They got an earful during a recent 14-hour hearing. And they have questions that remain unanswered, though the City Administrator has responded to those the Chairman earlier posed.

The biggest question is whether, as the Mayor contends, the site package is an all-or-nothing deal — one the Council must accept as good enough if it wants families more suitably sheltered.

In other words, must it approve all the contracts with the developers the administration has chosen — the sites, the designs and what they’d get paid — or face the prospect that the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter will remain open indefinitely?

We seem to have a consensus on the fundamental concept: Replace DC General with smaller shelters scattered around the city — one in almost every ward.* That’s about as far as consensus goes.

Some Councilmembers and other parties have raised concerns about the costs, for example, and what the District would actually get.

For the time being, let’s just say the District would spend a lot, mainly for shelters developers would own and could repurpose — in most cases, after 20 years. That’s what seems most troublesome to the Council.

But the groundswell of opposition centers on the administration’s choice of sites, mingled with protests over its failure to seek community input before producing its plan.

As one might expect, some of this is quite clearly a not-in-my-backyard response. Property values will drop (though the estimated value of the sites themselves will soar). Criminal activity will rise.

There will be congestion (because so many of those homeless parents own cars). They’ll loiter (though they’ll have rooms they can stay during the day, computer labs and both indoor and outdoor play spaces for the kids).

The Mayor says that people are fighting site choices out of fear, implying they fear having those homeless families as neighbors. But the facts say otherwise in one case for sure.

We see that residents in partially-gentrified Ward 5 object to the site chosen largely because it’s not in any neighborhood, properly speaking.

The site is a former industrial park, facing the largest of the transit authority’s bus depots. As many as 300 buses going in and out, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless told the Council. And while parked, they’re gassed up, tuned up, painted — all processes that emit toxic air pollutants.

Other nearby facilities — also perhaps health hazards and definitely not residential — include several auto body shops, a cement mixing facility and another where solid waste is transferred from the trucks that collected it to larger trucks.

The City Administrator discounts the health concerns. Says the Department of Health has, in essence, said that “current data shows that there are no increased health risks” for the future shelter residents.

But the department isn’t an independent agency. And whatever data it has, they’re apparently not the results of a full-fledged environmental analysis, since the Administrator would surely have provided it if they were.

Anybody who visits the site can confirm other concerns. There’s no nearby grocery store, for example, or a pharmacy. A couple of night clubs instead and a strip joint. Also family gardens of sorts — several marijuana farms.

One nearby bus stop, but no subway station. The closest is nearly two miles away — quite a long walk for anybody who’s not in the best shape and needs to get someplace quickly. Even more challenging for a parent who’s carrying or shepherding a child or lugging an armload of packages.

Children and adults alike would have to cross railroad tracks to get any place behind the site — another potential hazard, since trains will go barreling by.

Vocal Ward 5 residents and their representative on the Council — Kevin McDuffie — have yet another objection. The family shelter, they say, would be near two other shelters and five hotels the District is using to shelter families it can’t fit into DC General.

This may seem a variation on NIMBY — call it “we already have enough in our backyard.” And that surely seems the sentiment of one Ward 5 resident, who says that her ward and another “have had enough of these so-called help thy neighbor programs.”

But perhaps having so many shelters, permanent and otherwise, plus related social services all in one part of one ward could create a sort of ghetto, contrary to the vision of integrating the shelters — and thus the families — into the community.

The Mayor says that, in some cases, she and her team “had a very hard time finding locations.” They think the sites chosen “are the best” — presumably the best that bidders for the contracts proposed.

Ward 5 residents, among others, have identified alternatives. The City Administrator says none will do, for this reason or that. Also says the city initially rejected two other sites, both because too small.

One, he says, would have required a seven story building — the same as the shelter planned for another ward, as he doesn’t say.

In short, the Bowser administration has dug in its heels, fearing that if it budges, residents in every ward and their Councilmembers will pile on. Or so one gathers from the Mayor’s preemptive remarks.

But where there’s a will, there’s generally a way. And in view of all we know, the Council should create that will by telling the Mayor that her plan might be good enough if — and only if — she and her people find a safer, more residential and conveniently located site in Ward 5.

*  The administration’s plan would place family shelters in every ward, but Ward 2, which will get a shelter for women who don’t have children they’re caring for instead.

 

 


Bowser Budget Shorts Vouchers, Leaves Huge Affordable Housing Gap

April 7, 2016

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the District of Columbia has only 40 apartments affordable and available to rent for every 100 extremely low-income households and only 30 per 100 for the deeply low-income.

ELIs have incomes no greater than 30% of the area median — at most, $32,600 for a four-person family in D.C. For DLIs, the maximum is 15% of that median.

The NLIHC figures actually understate the affordable housing shortage here because the area includes well-off communities beyond the city line. Several years ago, the District’s own median was 23% lower.

Even so, clearly a yawning “housing gap” — a shortage of more than 30,600 units two years ago, when the Census Bureau conducted the survey NLIHC used.

It helps explain why nearly two-thirds of the District’s ELI households and nearly three-quarters of the DLI subset had to spend more than half their income for rent, plus utilities — commonly (and aptly) referred to as a severe housing burden.

The gap also, of course, helps explain why the District had so many homeless individuals and families — and still does, though we’ll have to wait a bit for new hard numbers.

The report confirms what everyone has known for a long time. The District sorely needs more housing that’s affordable for its lowest-income residents. And the District government must invest local tax dollars to create it — and preserve what remains.

The Mayor’s budget includes another $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which helps finance both construction and preservation, though not exclusively for ELIs and DLIs.

But developers can’t afford to build or renovate housing for them without an ongoing source of funds to help pay operating costs. That’s why the District also needs enough housing vouchers of the sort that’s attached to specific units — so-called project-based vouchers.

At the same time, it needs more tenant-based vouchers — those that make up the difference between what low-income people can afford and the market-rate rent of units landlords will lease to them.

Don’t look to the federal government to fund more vouchers. The current budget at best barely sustains those already in use. And the District hasn’t gotten anything like the number of vouchers it needs for many years.

That’s why its policymakers created the Local Rent Supplement Program — a source of vouchers modeled on the federal.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has raised concerns about proposed funding for LRSP in next year’s budget. There’d be only enough more to provide affordable housing for some 200 formerly homeless individuals and families, it says.

These would be tenant-based vouchers. They would replace some of the short-term vouchers individuals and families have through rapid re-housing and/or enable either or both to move from permanent supportive housing because they no longer need such intensive services.

The Mayor proposes no additional funds for the project-based type. How then could the Production Trust Fund actually produce more affordable housing for ELI residents — let alone the subcategory NLIHC has created?

The Fund, by law, is supposed to spend 40% on ELI housing every year. It hasn’t always in the past. But the head of the Housing and Economic Development Department said she’d ensure it did. And the latest awards seem to confirm that.

But developers may not respond to all the new opportunities the Fund will create if the Bowser administration can’t assure them of the ongoing subsidies project-based vouchers provide.

This isn’t the only problem with the significantly smaller LRSP increase the Mayor proposes. If all the tenant-based vouchers go to residents in rapid re-housing and/or PSH, there’ll be none for the ELIs and DLIs with housing burdens that put them at high risk of homelessness.

NPR recently profiled a single mother who’d just narrowly escaped eviction, but can’t rest easy because her monthly rent is about $335 more than what her job pays.

She knows that she should move the family to a more affordable place. but even the no-bedroom apartments she’s found rent for barely less than what she makes.

She applied for a housing voucher eight years ago. The family is now “1,000 something” on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list, she says. There are about 40,000 families behind her. And there would be more if DCHA hadn’t closed the list three years ago.

The problem NLIHC documents is hardly unique to the District. The shortages it documents are actually larger nationwide, as are the severe housing burdens. We can, I think chalk this up partly to investments of local funds.

But that’s hardly a source of comfort to District families who can barely come up with the monthly rent and money for the electricity bill — or who can’t, but manage to stay housed, heated and the like by putting off first one and then the other.

These families are obviously one loss of working hours or other new strain on their budgets away from homelessness — or just one more late rent payment.

The District may rapidly re-house them. But few will be able to pay full rent when their short-term subsidies expire — or find an apartment they can afford. And the proposed budget would by no means fund LRSP vouchers for all that will need them to remain securely housed.

The Mayor has embraced the goal of making homelessness a rare, brief, one-time experience in the District. So it’s perplexing to see that she’s proposing a smaller real-dollar increase for LRSP than budgeted in any recent year but one.

Not much of the “fair shot” her budget promises for those residents on the waiting list and the severely housing-burdened who aren’t because they couldn’t apply.

 


DC Mayor Leaves TANF Families Dangling Near Bottom of a Cliff

March 28, 2016

Mayor Bowser said, in her State of the District address, that she would ask the DC Council to raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. She wants to “make sure that more families … can earn a decent wage … [s]o that when their time on TANF has ended, they can afford to stay in the District of Columbia.”

Meanwhile, a reform of some sort “will keep families working their plans from falling off a cliff.” This, I take it, refers to families headed by parents who are putting in the required number of hours on their required work preparation and/or job search activities.

The Mayor’s proposed budget quashes whatever hope her speech raised. It would, once again, just push back the benefits cut-off for families who’ve participated in TANF for 60 months or more.

Better than pushing them out of the program six months from now. But they’d still receive only the drastically lower cash aid intended to lead up to the cut-off — perhaps with a very small adjustment to compensate for inflation.

A family of three now receives $156 a month — $1.71 per person, per day. Seems to me they’re already pretty near the bottom of that cliff.

One could understand the cut-off delay if the notion of extending benefits indefinitely for some at-risk families were altogether new such that experts in the Human Services Department had to start developing a proposal from scratch.

If they had no precedents in other states to look at, instead of those in forty-four. If the notion of preserving benefits for all the 13,600 or so children who’d get only a temporary reprieve had never crossed the Mayor’s radar screen before.

If no research had found that children in extreme poverty suffer irreparable damages that put them at extremely high risk for a lifetime of poverty.

The Mayor knows, as do many of you, that the Council already has a pending bill that would qualify families for extensions if cutting off their TANF benefits would leave them penniless — or in less dire cases, short of enough wage income to cover their basic needs.

The same bill would extend a lifeline to all children, even those whose parents didn’t qualify. And it would restore the cash benefits they and reprieved parents would receive if not up against the time limit.

That’s hardly enough to live on, even with other safety net benefits, but a whole lot better than what the Mayor intends. Our family of three would have $288 more a month — and could look forward to an increase next year, if still not earning enough to boost it over the income cut-off.

Strengthening the safety net, as the bill proposes, would cost roughly $30 million during the upcoming year — $20 million more than the Mayor’s kick-the-can-down-the-road-again approach.

She chooses instead to give more than half the total to businesses through another cut in the franchise tax and to the beneficiaries of estates, which would have no tax levied until the value, after deductions exceeded $2 million.*

The Council triggered these tax cuts — and possibly others — in its latest budget-related legislation, but she could have asked it to defer them.

I have nothing like the expertise to say where else Bowser and her budget experts could have found the funds needed for the TANF extensions. But they’re surely somewhere in that $13.4 billion budget.

I realize I’m not giving the Mayor credit for a number of fine budget proposals — $13.1 million to move the plan to end homelessness forward, for example, another $100 million commitment to help finance construction and/or preservation of affordable housing, further investments in public education. And so on.

But I can’t get over her decision to leave nearly 6,600 poor families hanging by a thread when she has such a clear, justifiable alternative. And I don’t think Councilmembers should go along when they could, at least in this respect, make the budget live up to its billing as “a fair shot.”

* Current law exempts assets that pass directly to surviving spouses and/or charitable organizations. So the larger tax break wouldn’t benefit them. It would benefit other heirs if either or both received some of the assets because the taxable value doesn’t include them.

UPDATE: I’ve just seen the Chief Financial Officer’s (unpublished) cost estimate for the short-term reprieve. He puts it at $11.6 million, based on an estimated 6,200 families and no cost-of-living adjustment, as I had thought there might be.


Will DC Policymakers Subject Children to Brain-Damaging Toxic Stress?

March 21, 2016

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute is celebrating its fifteenth year as a lead advocacy organization for low-income District of Columbia residents — and an invaluable source of research and analysis for many other advocates, including yours truly.

It highlighted the occasion by putting yet another plank in a platform that it and like-minded allies have been building for well over a year. And now they hope we’ll join them.

The plank was a series of brief presentations on why District policymakers shouldn’t cut the “lifeline” for nearly 6,600 very poor families. “The biggest issue in DCFPI’s history,” said Executive Director Ed Lazere. One can understand why.

The families, as many of you know, have reached (or exceeded) the rigid 60-month time limit the District now sets for participation in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Most of the parents are by no means ready to find — and keep — jobs that pay enough to support them and their children. Yet they could soon lose their only source of cash income, as well as other critical benefits and services.

You who follow this blog know I’ve learned quite a bit about TANF, the time limit and why it’s so wrong-headed, thanks in large measure to DCFPI and its parent organization, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The anniversary event nevertheless gave me a better understanding of some prospective harms to the 13,600 or so children in those at-risk families. They may, in fact, already be suffering those harms.

But policy changes can, to some extent, reverse the effects — this the hopeful code to an otherwise dismaying presentation by pediatrician and child health advocate Dr. Lee Savio Beers.

The harms are results of what medical experts call toxic stress — stress that causes physiological damages because it’s acute and experienced often or for long periods of time.

Not going to delve here into the various bodily reactions to stress — partly because they’re more various and complex than I understand. (Those of you who want to can find a technical explanation in this report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.)

Basically, I gather, a perceived challenge or threat triggers the release of certain hormones and other chemicals. When they keep surging, they affect the way our bodily systems work. We become more susceptible to a range of mental and physical illnesses, for example.

But toxic stress does other damages to children, especially in their early years because it affects the way the genes they’re born with shape the way their brains develop — and don’t.

On the one hand, the part of the brain that processes stress goes into a permanent hyperactive mode. On the other hand, portions of the brain that handle functions like thinking, learning and controlling emotions remain under-developed.

And if they don’t develop when they’re supposed to, they won’t. So there’s a limited window of opportunity to avert the effects of toxic stress. The key here is whether experiences that can trigger stress are “buffered” by nurturing attention from adults.

Conversely, abuse, even if only verbal or directed at another family member, and neglect, even if only inattention, trigger stress responses. If acute and/or prolonged, they’re toxic. Links to high levels of stress caregivers experience are obvious.

So toxic stress is communicable, though it’s technically not a disease. And relieving caregivers from conditions that stress them will protect children from it — and thus from becoming toxically-stressed parents themselves.

Lots of things can acutely stress parents, of course. But having no money or safety net benefits sufficient to compensate, as they generally aren’t, stresses any parent who’s sane and sober enough to have a child in her care.

So the District has these 6,600 or so families who’ll soon have no cash income, except what they can scrape together, plus SNAP (food stamp) benefits that rarely cover a full month’s worth of groceries and Medicaid, which will still leave the parents stuck for co-pays if they and/or their children need prescription drugs.

Many of those who aren’t already homeless soon will be, since fewer than a third live in subsidized housing (not counting housing subsidized by short-term vouchers, which will surely expire while the parents still can’t afford the full rent.)

A recently-published study that I (and many others) have referred to tells us how families get along on no more than $2 a day per person. Basically, they sell whatever they can — sex, for example, their plasma or, much as they don’t want to, their SNAP benefits.

They’re in “a constant, perpetual state of crisis,” says one of the coauthors. In other words, in a state that produces toxic stress in both parents and their children.

TANF, as another panelist said, offers states and the District a lot of choices. In the next few months, the Mayor and DC Council can choose to preserve a lifeline for many of the families now at risk — and others that will reach the current 60-month limit as time goes on.

Or they can choose to expose very poor children to more acute and prolonged toxic levels of stress, as well as the everyday hardships that fuel it and the long-term consequences of those.

As I’ve written before, a bill now pending in the Council would extend benefits beyond the time limit to families headed by parents who face unusually high barriers to work, plus some others — and to all children.

This wouldn’t only relieve impending toxic stress. It would relieve stress already caused by the benefits phase-out — a state of perpetual crisis, one assumes, since a mother and two children who could soon lose what remains of their benefits are already living on less than $2 a day.

Relief because the bill would restore the benefits families would have now if the District had granted them extensions from the get go. It wouldn’t altogether undo damages already done. But the relative security families would gain could lay the groundwork for reversals because the brain can modify its own structure, especially when children are young.

What’s needed now is the broadest possible expression of constituent support. Both individuals and organizations can sign a pledge endorsing the principles the bill reflects. I hope fellow District residents will seize this opportunity.

 

 


DC and States With “Ban the Box” Laws Ban People With Criminal Records From Work

March 10, 2016

We’re familiar by now with ways employers screen out job applicants with criminal records. Seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted “ban the box” laws to give these applicants a fair shot at gainful, legal work.

Turns out that all these states and the District have other laws or regulations that deny them any shot at jobs in various occupations where they could get paid a good bit — or become their own employer in these fields. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

A new report on “employment bans” from the Alliance for a Just Society suggests probably not. The bans here are laws that deny occupational licenses to people who’ve been convicted of certain crimes — or in some cases, any crimes at all.

One can see, I think, reasons for certain bans. A prudent concern for public safety could justify denying licenses as armed guards to people convicted of irrational crimes of violence when they first return to the community.

Someone with multiple convictions of drug dealing on a major scale perhaps shouldn’t get a license as a pharmacist right away. Denying a license to operate or work in a daycare center to someone convicted of child sexual abuse would surely seem reasonable.

But we see that the District reportedly has 72 crime-related restrictions on employment, including 35 applicable to occupational licenses or certifications and others (the number isn’t clear) that restrict business licenses. Illinois, which also has a “ban the box” law, has more than twice as many of the former.

The report, eye-opening as it is, lacks details one might wish for. Happily, the American Bar Association has an online database that specifies “collateral consequences” for licenses, by occupation and jurisdiction.

Some of the District’s one might understand, e.g., a ban on employment as a security officer after conviction of a weapons offense. Others you have to read to believe.

For example, the District denies licenses to buy and/or sell “junk/secondhand personal property” to people convicted of any felony. Any felony or misdemeanor renders someone ineligible for a real estate license or a license to act as an agent for athletes.

Most of the licensing barriers people with criminal records may face aren’t so clear because the ABA (rightly) classifies them as “discretionary.” This is true not only for the District, but for states, my random check indicates.

The District generally invests wide discretion in boards specific to particular occupations or categories thereof. They’re supposed to deny licenses to applicants with criminal records only when the offense “bear[s] directly on the fitness of the person to be licensed.”

Well, what does that mean? Whatever folks on the board decide apparently. But they’ve no such discretion when it comes to ten occupations the law exempts, leaving these to the Mayor’s discretion through the rulemaking process.

A strange collection here. Barbers and cosmetologists, for whom apparently rules were issued barring only those found guilty of “moral turpitude” — as if having knowingly filed a false tax return has anything to do with whether one can skillfully and safely cut hair (or fingernails).

Others in the exempt category include funeral directors, commercial bicycle operators and people who specialize in several types of building systems installation and repairs. What, one wonders, led policymakers to subject these occupations to different standards?

The more important question, of course, is why people who’ve paid their debt to society should suffer “collateral consequences” when they seek licenses to work in occupations they’re demonstrably qualified for, except when their records raise well-founded concerns about harms to others.

I’ve focused here on the District, but returning citizens face barriers to work that engages –and rewards — their specialized skills and/or knowledge everywhere, beyond the prejudices of individual employers. This is also true for some people who had no jail or prison term to return from.

The White House has raised concerns about these barriers, noting that as many as one in three Americans has a criminal record. Like half the states, the District has no standards specifying the relevance a conviction must have to a particular license, it says.

It cites other concerns as well, e.g., fees and the costs of tuition to meet the education or training requirements. These presumably close doors to many returning citizens, as well as other low-income people. And the need for these isn’t always obvious, as a selective account compiled for the District by the Institute for Justice shows.

Occupational licensing has burgeoned. Roughly five times as many workers were covered by state licensing laws in 2008 as in the early 1950s. Nearly two-thirds of the growth since the mid-60s reflects licensing in new occupations — and in new sectors, e.g., sales, construction.

All states and the District must soon submit comprehensive workforce development plans to receive funds authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — the new version of the Workforce Investment Act.

The plans must include success measures, with results reported separately for groups with especially high barriers to employment, including ex-offenders.

And they’re to include provisions for career pathways, i.e., individualized sequences of work experience, education and/or training and other services that will qualify them for increasingly advanced positions in high-demand fields.

Looks like a goodly number of those pathways for ex-offenders could lead to “do not enter” signs states and the District have posted. They’d be well-advised to reassess them if they want fewer re-offenders.

 


What DC Taxpayer Dollars Could Buy for Poor Residents

February 29, 2016

I note here, somewhat belatedly, that the Fair Budget Coalition has published its recommendations for the District of Columbia’s next budget.

It settled on nineteen of them — a heterogeneous collection, reflecting the primary interests and priorities of the working groups that initiated them.

I’ve blogged on some already — shelter for newly homeless families year round, for example, and the automatic tax cuts, along with the seemingly, though not technically automatic tax abatements.

As followers know, I’ve also blogged — some might say flogged — the need to the replace rigid time limit for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, e.g., here, here and here.

I may delve into others. At this point, however, I want to say a few words about the preface that’s intended to give readers a way to view the recommendations as a coherent whole.

We — and perhaps more importantly, the Mayor and DC Councilmembers — are invited to think of them as measures to increase public safety.

This, of course cleverly pings a concern that recent episodes of violence have fueled — and not only in poor neighborhoods, where residents have long-standing, well-founded fears of bodily harm (or worse) to themselves and their children.

It also pings the Mayor’s response — not approvingly, I hasten to add. The authors apparently view the ramped-up police presence in troubled neighborhoods and get-tough measures as “punitive” — particularly against blacks.

They do, however, build their framework on Police Chief Lanier’s own vision for public safety. “The goal,” she said, “should be to put us [the police force] out of business. The goal should be having investments before someone gets into the system” — specifically, “more investments in social services.”

Lanier calls for these investments because they’d prevent crime and thus help ensure public safety as we ordinarily understand it. The frame broadens the concept.

Safety may nevertheless seem a somewhat limited vision for our public policies — budgets included, of course. The recommendations themselves reach beyond safety from hunger, homelessness, lack of affordable health care and of money for other basic needs.

We see, for example, an understandably somewhat fuzzy recommendation for a “strong plan” to comply with the new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, including provisions for adult education.

Becoming proficient in a skill set employers seek and will pay decent wages for does, of course, help keep residents and their families safe from the everyday deprivations of poverty.

And it offers a modicum of safety from the related stresses — scrambling to stretch SNAP (food stamp) benefits for a month, find a friend or family member to stay with, someone who’ll watch the kids because the work schedule has suddenly changed.

Relief from such stresses provides more safety from mental and physical health problems — and as we know, from spillover damages to children that last even if stress in the home later subsides.

But a well-structured program, like what WIOA envisions, puts participants on a pathway to jobs that involve increasingly higher skills, responsibilities and pay.

There’s some safety from financial insecurity here, though no one can feel altogether secure in a job, of course. But employment that calls forth strengths joined with those of others and to some productive end fosters a sense of inclusion — both in the workplace and in our society as a whole.

Providing for one’s self and one’s family this way fosters a healthful self-esteem and sense of well-being too — and hope, if one foresees better opportunities ahead. That’s what a realistic, well-mapped pathway provides.

Other programs FBC expressly supports would also afford some security, as well as safety. Funding to repair public housing, for example, would not only keep occupants safe from mold, mouse bites, blasts of freezing air through broken windows, etc.

It would also give them some assurance they’d have a place to live with neighbors they know and have formed bonds with. And if their housing were then truly decent, it would preserve or restore their sense of dignity and inclusion in the community, as the DC Legal Aid Society says.

One could say something of the same for more locally-funded housing vouchers — the kind that individuals and families can have unless and until their income rises to the point they can afford to pay rent on their own. Likewise the kind that enables developers to afford the costs of operating housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents.

What I’m trying to get at here is that investments like those FBC recommends do more than provide a safety net of some specific sort. They extend to poor and near-poor residents intangibles we value in our own lives.

“We are talking about people,” as one comfortably-housed resident said at a heated meeting on the Mayor’s family shelter plan. There’s a message here that’s deeper and far broader than the intended rebuke to unneighborly neighbors.

Something to do with cost-benefit calculations beyond what any budget analyst could produce.


Why DC Should End “One Size Fits All” TANF Time Limit

February 18, 2016

We often see “one size fits all” used to characterize programs of various sorts, including the District of Columbia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The services aren’t that way any more. But the time limit is.

Families can participate for a lifetime total of 60 months. For some, that’s enough. For many, it’s not because the parents can’t get — and keep — a job paying anything like what they need to support themselves and their children.

We can get a handle on the barriers these parents face from the extensions the bill I recently mentioned would provide. They signal the sweeping nature of the time limit in another way too — specifically, that it denies benefits to children, who, of course, can do nothing to support themselves or make their parents more employable.

Different Extensions for Different Situations

Some of the proposed extensions would apply to parents who just need more time to surmount the barriers they face. Others recognize that some parents or substitute caregivers will probably face barriers until the kids are grown — longer, in fact, but they won’t be eligible for TANF any more.

This isn’t to say that we can use the extensions to neatly classify each TANF parent who might qualify. In some cases, it’s hard to say whether a parent just needs another year or so of cash support and services or whether further services probably won’t boost her over the barrier — or barriers — between her and gainful work.

The plural here because we shouldn’t assume that each parent faces only one barrier, as the Urban Institute’s analysis of the District’s TANF caseload clearly shows.

We can nevertheless find in the extensions various reasons families shouldn’t get tossed out of the program because they’ve reached a fixed, across-the-board time limit.

Parents Who Just Need More Time

Some extensions imply barriers parents can often surmount. For example, we find one for parents who’ve experienced domestic violence and are still receiving counseling or other such services to help them cope with the trauma.

Another extension would apply to parents who’d have an unusually hard time finding a job because the local unemployment rate for workers without at least a high school diploma is 7% or higher.

Two extensions would tend to reduce the number eligible for the above. One would apply to teenage parents enrolled in high school or a GED program.

The other would buy time for parents enrolled in a postsecondary education program or a credential-granting program that’s passed muster with the Department of Employment Services.

If TANF is supposed to reduce dependency, as the federal law says, then forcing these parents to quit their studies and seek low-wage, unstable jobs — the only sort most could get — is obviously counter-productive.

Parents Up Against Seemingly Permanent Barriers

Here we find an extension for parents who have severe mental or physical disabilities, but haven’t qualified for either of the two main federal sources of cash support for people too disabled to work.

Another extension would apply to parents with learning disabilities that preclude employment. Still another, which might overlap, is for parents who can’t read at the level expected of eighth graders.

Another would apply to any parent or “caretaker” who’s at least 60 years old — this, of course, because anyone in that age bracket who’s jobless and has been for long enough to hit the time limit will more than likely remain so.

Parents Behaving Responsibly

The bill specifically conditions some extensions on a parent’s compliance with her Individual Responsibility Plan, i.e., the set of activities she’s required to regularly engage in and the services she should receive.

Some parents may not qualify for any of those I’ve highlighted, but are dutifully following their plans. They too would qualify for extensions, as well they should, since they’re doing their best to move from welfare to work.

Families Likely to Suffer Specific Hardships

The bill would provide extensions for families that suffer certain hardships due, at least in part, to the very low benefits they receive — and for others that would suffer them without the benefits.

These include families that are homeless or likely to be. Also reprieved are those that would effectively cease to be families because the children would be put in foster care. This itself is a child protection — and anti-poverty — measure, since we’ve ample evidence that children who grow up in foster care tend to fare poorly.

More generally, all children would have some protection from poverty so dire it’s commonly referred to as “extreme.” Even if their parents didn’t get an exemption, their own share of their families’ benefits would continue until they themselves became ineligible — when they reached legal adulthood, for example.

Reprieves, Not Repeal of the Time Limit

The bill doesn’t extend benefits indefinitely for the families it would protect. Generally speaking, their cases would be reviewed every six months, though the Mayor could set longer review periods — a sensible choice, given the nature of some barriers.

The bill does, however, do more than avert worse hardships. It rolls back benefits for exempt families to what they would be if the DC Council, with then-Mayor Fenty’s apparently hearty approval, hadn’t established the across-the-board time limit.

Both the extensions and the rollback tacitly admit the policy was a mistake. And I suppose that’s the best we can hope for — at least, in the near term.

And near term is where we need to focus because, as I (and many others) have said, 6,000 or so families, including more than 13,000 children will have no TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to change the policy — and thus on a budget that covers the District’s share of the costs.

 


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