Holes in the Unemployment Safety Net

June 30, 2016

Picking up where I left off on the instability that plagues so many low-wage workers and their families. The reasons I’ve cited are all rooted in those low wages — and at times, even lower pay because so few of these workers have any paid sick or family leave benefit.

Which brings us to another wage-related source of instability. Households in the bottom fifth of the income scale have, on average, only enough money in the bank to cover nine days’ worth of expenses, the Pew Charitable Trusts report. What then if the breadwinners lose their jobs?

Unemployment insurance is supposed to serve as a safety net for them, as well as other workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own — and would work at another, if they could find it.

But only about one in four of all jobless workers received any UI benefits last year — a record low, the National Employment Law Project reports. Various reasons for this, including the following.

Not Enough for Long Enough

All states have UI programs, as you probably know. All provide some workers some portion of their lost wages if, as I said, they lose their jobs through no fault of their own, according to how states choose to define that, and if they actively search for work, also a variable definition.

Most states provide eligible workers with 26 weeks of benefits. Nine, however, cut back the weeks they cover — a response to drains on their under-funded UI trust funds during the Great Recession.

So workers in Florida and North Carolina, for example, may receive benefits for as few as 12 weeks. Those in three other states will definitely receive them for no more than 20.

Most of the nine, as well as some other states replace, on average, very small portions of lost wages — only about a third in North Carolina and less in five of the other cutback states.

So we’ve got two sources of financial instability here — as we do for many workers and their families even in states that haven’t whittled down their UI programs. But at least these workers receive something for awhile.

Not Enough Earned

Virtually all states require that workers have earned a certain amount during a so-called base period — generally the last four three-month periods before the one when they lost their job.

Some set a flat minimum for the base period. Others set a minimum for the quarter the worker got paid the most and then apply a formula to come up with a minimum for all four. Some use other formulas, e.g., one based on the average wage in the state.

Even more complexity and variety than I’ve indicated here. The bottom line is that the bottom lines states draw will disqualify some variable number of workers because they didn’t earn enough — most likely those who worked only some of the time and for low wages when they did.

Involuntary “Voluntary” Job Losses

Workers generally can’t get UI benefits if they quit. A few iffy exceptions, plus some that aren’t. But the latter don’t apply to workers in all states, even though the Recovery Act offered all incentives to adopt as many as three for “compelling family reasons” — domestic violence, for example, or to follow a spouse who’s leaving the area.

Yet workers may feel they’ve no choice but to quit when constantly shifting schedules prove too difficult to manage — because of childcare needs, for example.

They may have no UI benefits to fall back on, however, especially if they knew they couldn’t count on regular hours when they took the job, as CLASP and NELP report.

They may also wind up with no benefits if they didn’t try to continue working after a job or scheduling change — or if they did for more than a very short time. A Catch 22 if ever there was one.

Workers who get their jobs through temporary agencies may face a different barrier — basically, the agency’s claim that they quit because they didn’t immediately call in when the assignment they had ended. This apparently even if they didn’t know they had to.

Other Workers on Their Own

All states generally limit UI benefits to jobless workers who are available for work. Twenty-one deny them to all workers who can’t immediately accept a full-time job, even if they’d worked only part-time.

People who work for themselves can’t get UI benefits. This may seem altogether reasonable. But those classified as self-employed include independent contractors.

Clearly more of them than there used to be, though we don’t have a good read on how many, as the latest contingent worker report from the Government Accountability Office shows.

What we do know is that some workers classified as independent contractors are independent only of employer-sponsored benefits and major legal protections. An old problem that’s gotten renewed attention with the rise of the so-called gig economy.

The Department of Labor, IRS and some state agencies have ramped up efforts to end misclassification. But truly independent contractors and other contingent workers, e.g., day laborers, will have no income to tide them over when they’re out of work.

The Center for American Progress and two other progressive research and advocacy organizations recommend a short-term jobseekers allowance for these and other workers who’d remain ineligible for UI benefits, despite other recommended reforms.

They’d get about $170 a week for up to 16 weeks. Hardly a safety net, though better than nothing.

The allowance is just one small (in both senses of the word) piece of the CAP et al. agenda, which takes on a variety of flaws in the system — some I’ve flagged and many that I haven’t. Most, if not all the proposed reforms would require federal legislation.

Don’t suppose I need to restate the obvious.


No Shortage of Ideas for Better, More Affordable Child Care

May 9, 2016

I’m on somewhat of a tear about high-quality, affordable child care, as you who follow this blog know. That’s in part because I’ve discovered so much that I didn’t know and felt an urge to share.

So I’ve dealt with the extraordinarily high costs of unsubsidized care and the barrier that poses to low-income families. And I’ve dealt with quality standards and related factors.

In both posts, I’ve dwelt on money — or more precisely, lack of enough to give all low-income children, especially infants and toddlers the high-quality care they need when their parents need them to have it.

So time now to look beyond the defects to policy solutions. We’ve got a range, as I’ve already said.

One focuses strictly on what childcare workers get paid — an aspect of quality, for several reasons I’ve already tried to capture. The Fight for $15 campaign has broadened its original fast-food base by recruiting childcare workers. They too are speaking out for that increase in the minimum wage.

Sad to say, a victory would probably increase average earnings for childcare workers nationwide and in the District of Columbia, though the conventional phase-in for increases makes it hard to be sure.

The District may have a $15 minimum wage in 2020 — the last phase-in year set by what could be on the November ballot and by a bill the Mayor has sent to the DC Council. If it were effective now, it would increase the average childcare work wage.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute and DC Appleseed want the District to do something that would enable childcare providers to raise workers’ wages sooner and apparently higher, without cutting back on subsidized slots or spending less on other program quality components, e.g., educational materials, professional development.

The partners recommend increasing reimbursement rates for providers that care for children with subsidies. The measure they use for shortfalls, though not necessarily for their recommendation is 75% of what providers charge for unsubsidized care.

This is what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has long recommended. Not, however, to great effect. Only one state reimbursed at about this level last year — significantly fewer than in 2001.

One can readily infer that public funding hasn’t kept pace with need. What we know for sure is that total federal funding in 2014 dropped to its lowest level in twelve years.

Yet states and the District face a further potential cost crunch now that Congress has revamped the Child Care and Development Block Grant — the single largest source of federal funds for programs that serve poor and near-poor families.

CLASP and the National Women’s Law Center suggest that it needs more funding, even for states and the District to serve as many eligible children as they have at the same subsidy rates because they’ll have to spend more to meet the new requirements, including larger quality investments.

Bills recently introduced in Congress would go further. They would create a mandatory funding stream for the block grant, leaving it less vulnerable to annual spending choices.

The bills aim specifically to ensure high-quality care for all infants and toddlers in families with incomes no greater than 200% of the federal poverty line — about $40,300 for a three-person family now and sure to inch up over time.

States could get their share only if they had a plan to both expand access to these low-income kids and to improve quality — in part, by paying providers enough so they could meet standards specifically for the age group.

Don’t look to this Congress to pass those bills. They’ve got only a handful of cosponsors. They’re not so urgent as regular spending bills — an especially troublesome matter in the House. And their effect, if any, on the federal budget would prove troublesome in its own right.

The House bill would increase federal spending by about $25.3 billion over the first five years. The Senate bill seeks to offset the cost by collecting taxes from many U.S. companies that have managed to evade them through inversions — and others that will if the gaping loophole isn’t closed.

We already know how Congressional Republicans view a similar change — and not only, one gathers, because the Obama administration didn’t leave the matter to them.

Broader solutions floated nonetheless. The Center for American Progress, for example, calls for universal pre-K — a modest proposal, also advocated by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, among others, and already adopted by the District.

This, as I’ve suggested, addresses the need for early education, but not the need for high-quality care during all the hours parents work. CAP addresses that need too, with a tax credit to subsidize such care for children under five.

There already is a tax credit for child care, but only fairly well-off families gain the full benefit. And it’s a small one — at most, $3,000 per child and only twice that, no matter how many more children receive paid care.

CAP’s tax credit would instead deliver the greatest benefit to the lowest-income families, though families with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line would qualify for some support. And it would go, on a monthly basis, to providers, as health insurance subsidies already do — thus delivering the money directly and when it’s needed.

The Make It Work campaign reaches even further, advocating subsidies for all but wealthy families with children not yet in their teens. Costs to families would be capped at 10% of what they earn. And “providers” — presumably childcare workers — would get that $15 an hour wage.

Much pie in the sky, one may think. But the U.S. had something near to universal child care during World War II and would have had it again if President Nixon hadn’t viewed it as overly-costly and threatening to families.

All the proposals I’ve summarized here do have a price tag, of course. But the return on investment would be very high. We’d have more parents (mainly mothers) in the workforce — and more working full time. So there’d be more tax revenues flowing in, as well as going out.

The long-term returns, especially from quality care for low-income children would be greater and more various, as the Center for Equitable Growth shows.

We’d see, among other things, fewer needs for remedial instruction, less child abuse and neglect, less criminal behavior, better health, higher earnings and so both more tax revenues and fewer needs to spend them compensatory measures, including safety net benefits.

Seems to me family-strengthening. Strengthening for our economy and the frayed bonds of our society too.

 


Childcare Costs a High Barrier to Access for Low-Income Kids in DC and Nationwide

April 28, 2016

Picking up where I left off, access to child care is one of the big issues facing parents and policymakers. Low-income children, especially the youngest apparently don’t have equal access to the sort of care that would give them more equal opportunities during the rest of their lives.

So how might we parse access?

In one sense, it obviously means having enough slots in childcare centers, home-based and publicly-funded programs for all children whose parents want them there.

The slots must also, of course, be for their children’s age group and where parents can get their kids to them fairly quickly and at a reasonable cost.

But an age-appropriate slot in a conveniently located program will mean nothing if the parents can’t afford it. Nor if the program doesn’t provide care during the hours they themselves can’t.

We know how costly unsubsidized child care is nationwide and in each state, plus the District of Columbia, which racks up the highest costs of all.

Care for an infant in a local daycare center, for example, cost, on average, $22,631 last year — more than what a single parent, working full time, year round at a minimum wage job earned. Only about $4,790 less for a four-year-old.

The parent is technically eligible for a voucher. But the priority list for awards casts doubt on whether she could get one.

Even if she could, finding a slot could be hard because the District’s reimbursement rates are so low that providers either won’t accept children with subsidies or limit the number they will — a long-standing problem the District still hasn’t remedied.

The District also, however, has Early Start — a spin-off from Head Start for infants and toddlers in families with incomes no higher than the federal poverty line, plus some who may have more, but not enough to get by.

Little hope for poor parents here, it seems. The program enrolled only 12% of eligible children, according recent Census data.

For somewhat older children, the District has Head Start — an enrollment figure reportedly over 100% of those eligible. It also has pre-K programs in its public school system. These, of course, are also free.

But none of the programs operates on weekends or during evening and nighttime hours, when low-income parents must often work. Nor during summer months. So the programs may be accessible, but they don’t fully meet the need.

I’ve focused on the District, but we see generally the same problems in communities across the country — except, of course, for wealthy enclaves. Head Start and Early Start don’t provide nighttime care for children anyplace, for example.

Last year, child care was the single largest family expense, Care.com reports. But that’s only for parents who could scrape up the money — an average nationwide of about $9,775 a year for just one child in a center.

Obviously an access barrier for many others, unless they got vouchers to subsidize child care.The main federal funding sources subsidized care for only 15% of eligible children in 2012, the latest year we’ve got reliable figures for.

More recent figures from CLASP suggest that the gap between need and access has grown since, though we don’t — and to my knowledge, never had — a hard number for this.

We do, however, know that low-income parents must often make do with makeshift arrangements — sometimes parking a child with a relative, sometimes with a neighbor, sometimes just where they can keep an eye on their kids or not even that.

Most such arrangements may keep children safe, fed and the like. But they probably don’t provide the early learning experiences that a high-quality childcare program does. Money isn’t enough for that, but it’s the foundation.


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.

 

 


Hope for Bipartisan Reform of the EITC for “Childless” Workers?

February 25, 2016

Far be it from me to discount bipartisanship. It would be nice to see some at the federal level — on issues that would help poor and near-poor people, among others.

But I’m not as hopeful as some kindred spirits that proposals in the President’s budget could get Republican leaders in Congress on board — notably House Speaker Paul Ryan.

He’s floated a plan for “expanding opportunity in America” — specifically, for Americans stuck on the bottom rung of the income ladder. It proposes, among other things, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers.

The hopefuls see a chance for bipartisanship here. And perhaps there is. Conservatives, after all, want low-income people to work. And the EITC is said to reward work because it provides a tax credit for some variable amount of income earned by working.

It doesn’t, however, truly reward work for childless wage earners. Nor for those who have children, but not living with them for most of the year. Nor for young workers, childless or otherwise.

Together, they’re the only group our federal system taxes into poverty or — and more often — deeper poverty, as a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis shows.

How the EITC Works

The EITC reduces what many, but not all workers owe in income taxes. If they owe less than zero when they claim the credit, they get a refund.

For all eligible workers, the credit kicks in with the first dollar earned. It then rises by a set percent of earnings until a reaches a certain dollar value, cruises there for awhile and then declines, by a set percent, until it reaches zero.

Both the percents and the maximum dollar value depend on whether the filer has children in the home and, if so, how many. The tax structure also favors married couples over singles, but only in the phase-out if they’re childless.

The maximum credit for both is a mere $506. And singles get no credit at all when their countable income is less than what a full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage pays.

What the President (Again) Proposes

The President’s proposal would expand the EITC in several ways. First, it would change the minimum and maximum ages for claiming it.

At this point, “childless” workers don’t become eligible until they’re 25 years old. And they lose eligibility when they’re over 64, even though many remain in the workforce longer, if they can — especially now that they can no longer get full Social Security retirement benefits until they’re older.

The President would make the eligible age range 21 to 67, the age when workers born in 1960 or thereafter will reach Social Security’s full retirement age — unless forces for so-called entitlement reform succeed in boosting it again.

He would also double the phase-in rate, i.e., the percent of earned income that translates into a larger credit. The maximum credit a worker could claim would almost double. And a worker could get it for longer because the phase-out rate would match the phase-in.

About 13.2 million low-income workers would benefit — both those newly eligible and those eligible now.

What Could Stymie Bipartisan Reform

The structure Ryan proposes for “childless” workers mirrors the President’s. And he too would drop the minimum eligibility age to 21. He’d leave the maximum age the same, but that seems readily negotiable.

What won’t be is the pay-for, i.e., the offsets that will prevent the losses in tax revenues from increasing the deficit.

The new proposed budget doesn’t say specifically what other proposal(s) would offset the losses. We do, however, see various tax reforms that would more than offset them, as well as help pay for direct spending initiatives.

In fact, closing just one tax loophole high-earning individuals can — and apparently do — use to legally game the system would raise more than four times the cost of the expansion. The President’s economists cited this loophole-closer as an EITC expansion pay-for last year.

Ryan’s opportunity plan specifies pay-fors too — all spending cuts. He expressly rejects raising taxes — even, one infers, by closing unintended loopholes.

He’d eliminate what he calls — perhaps rightly, in some cases — instances of “corporate welfare.” But he’d pay for the EITC expansion mainly by ending “programs that don’t work” — and reducing “fraud” in the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit.

Programs he’d eliminate include the Social Services Block Grant and two small programs that aim to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the diets of young children.

Now, the Social Services Block Grant is challenging to defend with the “hard evidence” Ryan wants — ironically, for reasons that should appeal to him and his Republican colleagues. First off, it’s a block grant — and like most others, under-funded, in part because it’s had no increase for many years.

But the main reason it’s hard to defend — and should appeal — is that it offers states lots of flexibility. So they can invest a bit of money here, a bit there, supplementing their own funds and tapping funds from other federal sources.

How then to prove the effectiveness of SSBG in, for example, providing child care so that parents can work, reducing senior hunger, protecting children and adults with disabilities from abuse, etc.?

Does this mean the program doesn’t work? Of course, not. Nor would what Ryan proposes for the Child Tax Credit prevent costly fraud.

It’s instead what’s sadly familiar by now — requiring parents who claim it to have Social Security numbers. This would deny refunds to low-income undocumented workers — and indirectly, their children, most of whom are U.S. citizens, as if that should matter to someone who professes concern for poverty in America.

Why Bipartisan Reform Only Doubtful, Not Hopeless

It’s not only the specific offsets Ryan proposes, but his whole approach that casts doubt on a bipartisan bill — and subsequent vote — to make work pay for so-called childless adults.

But who knows? A majority of House Republicans and enough in the Senate did agree to a budget deal that converted the time-limited EITC and Child Tax Credit improvements in the Recovery Act to permanent law.

Give them enough of what they want, swallow enough of what you don’t but can live with and we could have a fairer EITC. A lower poverty rate too. Hopes, needless to say, contingent on the results of the upcoming elections.


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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