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.

 


President Has Bold, New Plans for Homeless and At-Risk Families

February 16, 2016

The Obama administration has turned its attention to family homelessness — a big problem even now, years after the recession officially ended. We find the focus in the President’s proposed budget — and not only in the groundbreaking investment the White House overview flags.

We could, of course, find it in all sorts of places, especially if we took a long-range view. We see, for example, diverse investments that will enable current and future workers to qualify for higher paying jobs.

But I’ll confine myself here to a handful of proposals that would house homeless families and prevent some from losing their homes. A partial summary even so.

Assistance for Homeless Families

The proposed budget would dedicate $11 billion over 10 years to housing assistance earmarked for homeless families. An estimated 80% would fund Housing Choice vouchers — those that families can generally have so long as their incomes don’t rise above 30% of the median for the area they live in.

The other 20% would support rapid re-housing, which generally subsidizes housing for a year or less, plus services intended to enable families to then pay the full costs.

The budget for the upcoming year would essentially make a down payment, providing funds for 10,000 new vouchers for families with children and 8,000 more units to rapidly re-house others.

An interesting policy shift here, since the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness has tilted toward rapid re-housing as the tool for ending family homelessness.

We can, I think, credit the shift to the findings of a recently-completed study conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The White House summary, in fact, suggests as much.

Shift in Budget Too

The homeless family piece of the proposed budget is notable for another reason. The $11 billion would be so-called mandatory spending. In other words, the federal government would have the authority to make the investment unless Congress changed or repealed it.

Up to this point, homeless assistance, vouchers and other such programs have depended on discretionary spending, i.e., the choices Congress annually makes. This would still be true for the down payment.

But the larger shift to the mandatory side will permit further investments without effectively taking funds from other non-defense programs, as they would if they added to discretionary spending, which the Budget Control Act caps.

Though subsequent deals temporarily eased the caps, public housing authorities are still shy roughly 67,000 housing vouchers lost due to the across-the-board cuts the BCA required for 2013.

Mandatory funding at the proposed level would provide 20,000 new vouchers a year, a HUD director told those of us on a budget briefing call. The Secretary put the total number of families housed at 550,000 during an in-person briefing.

And they’d be secure from the vagaries of annual spending choices.

Short-Shot Homelessness Prevention

Not all families need ongoing assistance to cover their housing costs, of course. Some can remain housed if they merely get a swift infusion of cash or the equivalent — enough, for example, to repair a car needed to get to work or to defray lost wages when an injury sidelines the breadwinner.

The President proposes $2 billion for grants to test ways of providing emergency aid and services. This too is a sort of down payment because the aim is to learn what works best — and so pave the way for a future initiative.

This isn’t the only preventive measure the President proposes. We find also two for insurance. One would tackle state restrictions on unemployment insurance benefits that left barely more than a quarter of laid-off workers with any wage replacement in 2014.

The other measure would create a wage insurance program for workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for one paying less. They’d get half the wages they lost for two years, though no more than $10,000 total. Still, a bit of a cushion for families while they try to adjust.

More Hope Than Change?

Republican House leaders bashed the proposed budget before they even saw it. “[A] progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans,” Speaker Paul Ryan opined.

That doesn’t mean it’s altogether irrelevant, however. For one thing, it presents reasonable solutions to problems that affect hardworking Americans, as well as those who can’t work — homeless children, for example.

How many of them is anybody’s guess. We do know, however, that the latest reported one-night count found nearly 128,000 who met HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless.” That’s a lot of kids to shrug off as just cost items in a left-wing agenda.

The proposed budget is also relevant because its homeless family initiatives — and many others that would benefit lower-income people — don’t drive up the deficit. On the contrary. The projected deficit would drop by $2.9 trillion over the next 10 years.

I can’t account specifically for the budget changes that would pay for the President’s initiatives. I do note, however, a suite of tax reforms that would raise more revenues from corporations and well-off individuals.

Doubt Congressional Republicans will accept the pay-fors to give homeless families a modicum of security — or in other ways, help poor and near-poor people, as the President proposes.

But the offsets show what’s possible within tight fiscal constraints. And they could be back on the table, a hopeful budget expert has suggested. A lotta hope there. but who knows?

Better to let hope fuel our efforts, as it has at the White House, than to leave change to “the worst,” who surely are “full of passionate intensity” these days.

UPDATE: Due to a typographical error, this post originally understated the estimated number of families that would have housing vouchers. I have corrected the figure.

 


Reprieve for DC TANF Families Awaits Needed Action

February 11, 2016

The post that launched this blog bashed the DC Council for rescinding a small increase in benefits for families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

That was in December 2008, when the recession had thrown the budget out of balance. I mention it now because we’ve come a long way since then — and in one major respect, a longer way from meeting the needs of the District’s poorest families.

In 2008, we left them with the same TANF cash benefit they’d been receiving. Now we’re going to leave some 6,000 of them with no cash at all come October — and more families as time goes one.

They’ll also lose the other benefits TANF families may receive — those that could enable some of the parents to more than fill the income gap.

Or they won’t all lose them. The Mayor and Council could at least partially remedy an extraordinarily harsh and counter-productive policy adopted in 2011.

A bill introduced in December would extend benefits for certain types of the at-risk families — and for all children, regardless of whether their parents qualify.

What Lost Benefits Means

First off, we’ve got to recall that the District’s TANF programs provides only very low cash benefits — a maximum of $441 a month for a parent with two children, for example.

If the family has participated in TANF for 60 or more months — not necessarily consecutive — it’s now receiving $154 a month or 9% of the federal poverty line. Not, one might think, much to lose.

But no cash assistance whatever will make a difference. For example, parents won’t have the money to supplement their families’ SNAP (food stamp) benefits, as recipients are expected to and generally must.

They won’t have the money that enables some of them and their kids to remain housed — often by doubling up with another family and paying some of the living costs.

Getting tossed out of TANF — and with no possible return — will also deny them other benefits that can enable some of them to make it on their own.

For example, they’ll no longer have a trained professional to help them develop and carry out a self-sufficiency plan based on their strengths and needs.

They’ll no longer have subsidies for transportation to programs that improve their prospects in the labor market or to job fairs, interviews and the like.

They may no longer have childcare subsidies either — and most surely won’t have anything like the money needed to pay for child care themselves.

All these losses will impair the well-being and future prospects of more than 13,000 children, not counting those we can’t yet count. So we’ll have another generation of families mired in poverty.

How We Came to This Pretty Pass

The policy that puts so many families at risk never made good sense, even from a narrow cost perspective.

Sheltering homeless families is hardly free. Medical care for children isn’t either. And we know that food insecurity — and the insecurity of having no home — puts kids at high risk for both physical and mental illnesses.

So how did our policymakers come to put the rigid time limit in place? Well, the DC Council hastily passed a bill pushed by then-Chairman Vincent Gray, who was about to become mayor. The time limit, the Department of Human Services had said, better aligned District policy with federal law.

But the federal law doesn’t require the District or any state to set a time limit. It merely restricts use of the block grant funds that cover a share of TANF program costs to 60 months of benefits per family.

And even here, not altogether. States may further extend benefits for up to a fifth of their TANF families and still use federal funds to pay for them if, among other things, the loss would cause hardship, however the state defines that.

The DC Council, however, made no provisions for extensions. It didn’t even, as most states did, start the countdown when it set the time limit. That would have been only fair in any circumstances.

It was especially harsh and unwise here because the District’s TANF program had egregious flaws, amply documented by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and SOME (So Others Might Eat) before the Council acted.

The flaws, in various ways, minimized a parent’s chances of moving from welfare to work that paid anything like enough — for long enough — to support her and her children.

The Council and about-to-be-former Mayor Adrian Fenty paid no heed. Gray’s new Director of Human Services did, however. He produced a plan to overhaul the TANF program.

Took quite a long time to get it fully operative, however. Parents often had to wait many months to get the training or job search help their plans called for — this after they finally got assessed. But the wait times counted.

And results for the parents up against the time limit suggest that many found — or were placed — in jobs that didn’t last for long or pay enough while they did.

This may reflect on the quality of the services. But it also indicates that many of the time-limited families are headed by parents who can’t — at least, at this point — surmount unusually high barriers to gainful employment.

Why Barriers Argue Against Rigid Time Limits

We’ve known of daunting work barriers for a very long time. A 2003 report from the Urban Institute cited 15 in the District’s TANF caseload. What they tell us — and should have told the Council — is that the rigid time limit doesn’t propel all parents through job training and into the workforce.

Some may become work-ready given more time. Others face barriers that have no foreseeable time limit — severe mental disabilities, for example.

I may have more to say about barriers and the proposed extensions. For now, just a parting shot.

Cash benefits for families now facing cut-offs have been repeatedly cut. That’s why our three-person family receives just $154 a month. The mom could make nearly six times that working only half time at a job paying the District’s minimum wage.

Seems to me no one can reasonably doubt that she would if she could.

 


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