Thankful I Live in DC

November 25, 2015

Like many of you, I suppose, I try to take some time before Thanksgiving Day to focus on what I have to be thankful for. In my case, a lot, even on this Thanksgiving, when I’ll have no one ministering to the turkey — my late husband Jesse’s traditional (and favorite) holiday task.

One thing I’m thankful for and recur to often as I browse policies that affect low-income people is the fact that I live in the District of Columbia.

As followers know, I gripe about policy choices our mayors and the DC Council make. Sometimes more than gripe.

I’m constantly reminded, however, of how relatively progressive the major choices generally are — and of how even current debates occur within a relatively progressive framework. A few examples.

Jobless Workers

The Council seems poised to increase unemployment insurance benefits for at least some jobless workers, as well as to enable some to get them for longer

A bill cosponsored by a majority of members would, among other things, increase the maximum weekly benefit — long stuck at $359 — to $430 and then adjust it annually so that it didn’t again lose purchasing power.

It would also enable recipients to work part time without losing as much of their benefits as they do now — another increase of sorts.

Meanwhile, nine states have cut UI benefits by reducing the maximum time jobless workers can receive them to fewer than the customary 26 weeks. Two states will now cut the lifeline at 12 weeks when their unemployment rates drop to 5-5.5%.

And five states have chosen not to ask for waivers of the highly-restrictive SNAP (food stamp program) eligibility maximum for able-bodied workers without dependents. One of them — Kansas — is among the states that cut eligibility weeks for UI benefits.

So ABAWDs who are jobless for as little as 16 weeks will have neither cash income nor a cash equivalent to feed themselves — unless they can get into a job training program.

Unlikely, since states don’t have to provide any training slots for them. And most don’t, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has again reported.

The District has not only preserved the waiver it’s entitled to. It’s done other things to extend SNAP benefits to as many residents as possible — and to make them as sufficient as seems possible, even to the extent of committing local funds to boost the minimal minimum.

Affordable Health Care

The District swiftly embraced the opportunities in the Affordable Care Act — both to expand its Medicaid program and to establish an online marketplace so that residents with incomes above the new maximum could purchase health insurance, in many cases subsidized.

And it promoted enrollment in a variety of ways — through advertising, partnerships with the local soccer team and largest drug store chain and funding for 35 divers organizations to support trained “assisters,” who help residents understand the ACA and navigate their way to a sign-up.

At the same time, it retained the locally-funded Healthcare Alliance so that low-income residents barred from Medicaid and the exchange — mainly undocumented immigrants — could get affordable health care too.

As a result, the District’s already low uninsured rate dropped to 5.3% last year — bested only by Massachusetts, which provided the model for the ACA.

Meanwhile, 20 states still refused to expand their Medicaid programs. And 13 of them passed laws to hobble the federally-funded navigators — one of the two types of “assisters” the District provides.

We see the results in the same Census health insurance report I linked to above. Highest uninsured rates in the non-expansion states — led by Texas, with a rate well over three times the District’s.

Not surprisingly, when Texas, among others, excludes all childless adults from its Medicaid program and covers only parents with incomes no greater than 15% of the federal poverty line — about $3,013 for a parent with two kids.

Family Planning Rights

The District would — if it could — use its own tax revenues to ensure that low-income women who live here can choose to end a pregnancy when they believe that’s best, a right they supposedly have under the Constitution.

The District can’t because Congress exercised its prerogative to meddle in the local budget in ways it can’t — and wouldn’t dare to — if the District were a state like any other.

Meanwhile, 24 states have cleverly (they think) found a way around the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which made the Constitutional right operative.

They’re using their taxpayer dollars to defend laws that effectively deny the right by requiring clinics that provide abortions to meet wholly unnecessary standards — all very costly and at least two sometimes absolutely impossible to comply with.

Texas will defend its unusually expansive rules before the Supreme Court, using tax dollars women have perforce contributed. The governor makes no bones about the intent of the rules.

“The ideal world, ” he says, “is one without abortion. Until then, we will continue to pass laws to ensure that they are as rare as possible.” So much for the alleged concern for women’s health and safety.

Well-off women will, of course, still have abortions. They’ll travel to communities with clinics that have managed to meet the standards — or to states that haven’t enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, so-called to produce the appropriate acronym, i.e., TRAP.

They’ll perhaps have abortions in hospitals, as well-off women with compassionate doctors sometimes did before Roe.

Meanwhile, hundreds of desperate women have already tried to-it-yourself abortions — at genuine risk to their health and safety. Who knows how many more have borne children they didn’t want and can’t care for? How many have instead done away with themselves?

Got my juices flowing here, when I should be thinking about turkey juices. But I am truly thankful that I’ve settled in the District. And I’m thankful for Jesse, without whom I probably wouldn’t have. But that’s another story.


Why Child Care Costs So Much

November 16, 2015

My recent post on childcare worker wages teed up, but didn’t explore an apparent paradox. While the workers’ wages are typically very low, costs of having a child cared for are formidably high. While these affect all families with kids who need care, they’re especially problematic for low-income families.

They obviously take a relatively bigger bite out of the budgets of low-income families who pay them. But they may also shrink those budgets because a parent decides that she (yes, usually a she) has no choice but to drop out of the workforce — or work less — so she can do the child caring herself.

So it’s worth asking, I think, why child care costs so much and whether public policies have — or could have — an influence, for good or ill.

One of the researchers on the team that assessed the public benefits costs of childcare worker wages suggests that the growth of the for-profit childcare industry might explain it. Spokespersons for a nonprofit that represents childcare centers beg to differ.

They cite stricter caregiver-to-child ratios, which state licensing rules set, more use of labor-intensive infant care and “fluctuating” rates for the reimbursements providers receive when they care for low-income children with subsidies.

This last, I take it, means reimbursements that don’t actually cover the difference between what the children’s parents pay and what providers must spend to cover their costs, with something left over, unless they’re nonprofits by choice.

Gillian White at The Atlantic explores the childcare center perspective by focusing on the owner of a center in Detroit.

The owner employs three lead teachers for nineteen children, some of whom are virtually newborns, some old enough to be spending part of their days in school.

She pays her staff about $9 an hour — even less than the median the Economic Policy Institute reports. But, she says, once she’s paid them, plus rent, utilities and materials, there isn’t much left over.

In some types of businesses, employers hold down labor costs by increasing productivity. They automate tasks, for example, so as to get more output per worker. Well, it’s hard to imagine automating diapering, wiping tears away or working with young children on educational activities.

And as both the center owner and the EPI analysts say, simply boosting the caregiver-child ratio would conflict with the aim of providing high-quality care.

What then could make child care less costly, assuming the owner’s balance sheet is more or less typical?

She sees childcare services as an area where government could do more to both relieve the cost burden on families and, one gathers, on centers like hers, since White’s summary refers specifically to their having the resources to pay higher wages.

The owner cites universal pre-K and income-based subsidies as possibilities. Expanding both would make child care more affordable for low-income families — the former, in fact, free for at least part of the time they need it.

Neither, however, so far as I can see, would make it easier for childcare providers to pay higher wages unless the subsidies, plus the fees families must pay cover higher operating costs.

Reimbursements rates differ not only among states, but within states, depending on various factors, e.g., the age of the child, the type of care, certain quality measures. Generally speaking, the federal government recommends 75% of current market rates, i.e., what providers charge families without subsidies.

Only one state set its reimbursements rates this high last year, though more than half did in 2001, the National Women’s Law Center reports. Some explicitly set their percents lower. Others that adopted the 75% standard hadn’t adjusted their rates — in some cases, for a goodly number of years.

Some states have compensated for this squeeze by increasing the percent of income that poor and near-poor families must pay. That, of course, further squeezes budgets that can barely — if at all — cover other basic living costs.

Co-pays notwithstanding, families may have subsidies, but a hard time finding providers who’ll care for their children. The Center for American Progress reports significant drops in the portion of subsidized children cared for in programs operated by two large, multi-state chains. The head of another chain says that unqualified providers have emerged to fill the care gap.

In short, we have a well-intentioned system that’s not working as it should because, as EPI has said, “high-quality child care is expensive,” and our policymakers won’t pay for it, though some seem far more willing than others.

Nothing unique about this. Surely not among our anti-poverty programs. But given the returns on investment, we as a country surely ought to do better.


Do Nothing Congress Gets Something Pretty Good Done

October 30, 2015

So Congress did indeed pass a big package to deal with pressing, undone business. It’s entitled the Bipartisan Budget Act. And one could call it that, though it would have died in the House if still-Speaker Boehner hadn’t relied on Democrats to get it through.

No one, so far as I know, likes everything in it. But it’s a whole lot better than no bill at all — and not only because the federal government was mere days before defaulting on the debt.

I can’t possibly cover every jot and tittle. Here instead is what I’ve learned about several major issues I’ve blogged on.

Spending Caps

The bill doesn’t eliminate the spending caps that the Budget Control Act imposed. It does, however, lift them for this fiscal year and the next. For non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, this will mean an extra $40 billion — the same as the extra for defense.

Most of the extra non-defense money applies to the budget for this fiscal year, which Congress still hasn’t produced. Only another half billion or so will be left for the following year. Then the caps kick in again, forcing cuts unless the next Congress and President agree to prevent them.

On the upside, the non-defense programs will have $34 billion more this year than they would have had with no budget deal. On the downside, they’ll have 12% less in real dollars than they had the year before the BCA first cut and then capped spending.

What this means, in practical terms, is that we can’t hope for significantly larger investments in the safety net programs funded as much (or little) as Congress chooses each year — WIC, for example, housing assistance and homeless services.

Nor for significantly larger investments in a wide range of programs that offer low-income people opportunities to fare well without “welfare,” e.g., education, job training, affordable, high-quality child care.

In short, as CLASP says, the cap relief is “a welcome down payment,” but only that.

Disability Insurance Benefits

The bill shores up the trust fund that helps pay for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. As I’ve written before, the trustees projected total depletion next year. That would have forced across-the-board benefits cuts of about 20%.

The bill preserves full benefits, with no changes in eligibility standards by shifting money from the retirement benefits trust fund, as many experts have recommended ever since insolvency loomed on the horizon.

This should avert a shortfall for seven years. And, no, it doesn’t “rob Social Security,” as the Heritage Foundation (and other right-wingers) claim.

Some funds to offset the costs of the package as a whole will come from the DI program. These include savings expected from beefed-up investigations to identify fraud, plus revenues from steeper penalties.

The bill also eliminates a long-standing pilot program that enabled staff responsible for processing SSDI claims in 20 states to determine eligibility without an independent medical opinion.

All applicants will henceforth have to have two written evaluations from medical experts, either their own doctors or doctors the DI office refers them to.

The fact that the bill anticipates savings from this indicates that the scorekeepers expect it to result in more denials and/or longer delays in approvals. But the projected savings are very small — about 0.3% of benefits paid.

A small price to pay for fending off cost-reduction measures some Congressional Republicans have pushed for, e.g., denying SSDI benefits to recipients who returned to the workforce and then received unemployment benefits because they were laid off.

The bill also requires the Social Security Administration to test an alternative way of encouraging SSDI recipients to try working again.

Seems like a good idea, but probably won’t reduce the DI rolls by much, since most former workers who make it through the screening process are far too disabled to ever “engage in substantial gainful activity” again.

Medicare Premiums

That Medicare Part B premium spike I blogged on earlier this week won’t occur. Well-off seniors will, as always, have to pay more for the outpatient care and other health-related costs Part B covers.

The rest of the 16.5 million or so who were going to get hit hard will have to pay only the same amount more as they would have if all Part B beneficiaries paid a share of the expected spending increase, just as they do virtually every year when Social Security benefits are adjusted to reflect estimated living cost increases.

The unprotected will now have to pay about $15 a month more, plus an additional $3 over a longer period of time so as to restore general tax revenues tapped to cover the costs of the remedy. Rolling the two together, I figure premiums will increase, on average, by about half as much as they would have without the fix.

Not the End of the Story

So Congress packed up for the weekend, having done what seemed impossible. If no one’s altogether happy — and no one ever is with bipartisan deals — reasonable people on both the left and right seem pretty satisfied.

Need I add relieved that we won’t find out how much damage to our economy and economies around the world an unprecedented default on the federal debt would cause?

Now comes the budget or some equivalent to prevent a government shutdown before mid-December. So no one with an interest in any of the multifarious issues can rest easy. But advocates for programs and services that benefit low-income people should feel good about how much they’ve achieved.


Will We Have DC Families Living on Less Than $2 a Day?

September 28, 2015

Short answer to the question the title poses is we already do, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. And about a year from now, we could have well over 6,000, including about 13,000 children with no cash income whatever unless Mayor Bowser comes up with a lifeline that the DC Council approves.

“This is the single most important moment for poverty in D.C.” since the birth of DCFPI in 2001, Executive Director Ed Lazere told a group of us meeting to discuss the crisis those families may face.

What Has Driven So Many Families Into Such Deep Poverty

Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months or more have exceeded the time limit District law now sets. It provides for a benefits phase-out leading to zero in October 2016.

The Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut, but then let it resume. So a three-person TANF family now receives a benefit equivalent to 9% (not a typo) of the federal poverty line.

What Federal Law Has to Do With the Time Limit

No state or the District must have a time limit. We can trace the reason virtually all do to the law that established TANF. It generally prohibits states from using their federal block grant funds for cash assistance to adults or minor heads-of-household after they’ve been in the program for 60 months. Exceptions allowed, however (of which more below).

What We Know About TANF and Work

Parents do, by and large, seem to have a sense of urgency about finding work. Extremely low benefits, as well as imminent cut-offs help account for this, though we shouldn’t ignore aspirations and values they share with the great majority of Americans.

Staying in the workforce — and in a job that pays more than the very low maximum for TANF eligibility — is another matter.

We know from past research that adults who leave TANF for work or because work they had began to pay more often return to the program — about one in five during the late 1990s, when the labor market was considerably more favorable than it is now.

A more recent audit of the District’s longest-term participants casts severe doubts on their employment and earnings prospects. Fewer than half the parents who’d received job training and/or placement help got a job of any sort. And only a tiny fraction still had those jobs six months later.

These dismal results probably reflect, among other things, reasons they’ve come up against the time limit. A deplorable lack of current research here.

But we know from a 2002 study of the District’s TANF caseload that most parents who’d remained in the program for three years faced multiple barriers to work, e.g., less than a high school education, little (or no) work experience, mental health problems, recent and severe domestic violence, sick children or other family members they had to care for.

These findings generally conform to others. An evaluation of a Minnesota TANF employment program, for example, found, among other things, that about two-thirds of participants had a physical or learning disability, a mental health problem and/or responsibility for an incapacitated family member.

What the District Could Do

The District had no time limit until 2011, after soon-to-be Mayor Gray pushed through a bill during his last days as Council Chairman — a license for him to revert to his earlier benefits phase-out plan.

And indeed, he did, but with none of the relief options federal rules allow. For example, the District could extend benefits beyond the time limit for up to 20% of its average caseload and still use federal funds to pay for them so long as the families met criteria for “hardship,” however it chose to define that, or had a member who’d been “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.”

Most states extend benefits when parents, for various reasons, can’t be expected to immediately find work — because they’re victims of domestic violence, for example, sick or incapacitated or caring for family member who is.

As of mid-2013, 14 states provided extensions when parents were “cooperating,” i.e., doing what their plans said they should, but couldn’t find work. This would seem especially relevant to the District’s at-risk families.

Though we don’t know how many of the parents have less than a high school diploma or the equivalent, we do know that working-age residents (25-64 years old) without the credential have very high unemployment rates — nearly 14.6% last year, according to the American Community Survey. Probably even higher for younger residents.

We also know that parents in the District’s TANF program are still on waiting lists for job training and placement services — about 300, the new head of the agency responsible for TANF told us at the meeting.

More to the point perhaps, parents waited, on average, 11 months for such services last year. But the clock kept ticking toward the time limit.

And some of them were pretty far along before the Department of Human Services rolled out improvements in both the training component and the assessments used to decide which services would best prepare parents for work. Time in the old problem-riddled program still counts.

What Will Happen Next

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year pushes back the benefits cut-off that was originally set for October 2015 in part because the Mayor wanted DHS to have some time to develop an extension policy — something it should have done four years ago.

One can hope the policy recognizes the fact that the vast majority of TANF parents aren’t to blame for remaining unemployed — or so egregiously under-employed as to still be income-eligible.

Nor to blame if some unforeseeable barrier arises after they’ve passed the time limit, e.g., an eruption of domestic violence or stalking, a debilitating illness. Needless to say, children aren’t to blame, no matter what.

All this calls for not only liberal extensions, but a rollback of the benefits cuts that have caused such dire hardships for the 60-month families.

Yet even the best extension policy and fully restored benefits can’t make up for flaws in the basic structure of the federal TANF law — the main reason some 1.5 million families have had to get by on, at most, $2 a day.

Better Poverty Measure Changes Rates, Strengthens Case for Safety Net

September 21, 2015

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau published the results of its latest Supplemental Poverty Measure analysis at the same time as its official poverty measure rates for 2014.

As in the past, the SPM produces a somewhat higher nationwide poverty rate — 15.3%. Though a tad lower than the comparable rate last year, slides from the Bureau say it’s not enough to pass the statistical test.

We also see different rates, both higher and lower, for the major population groups the Bureau breaks out. For example, the child poverty rate is 4.8% lower — 3.5 million or so fewer children. At the same time, the senior poverty rate rises by nearly as much.

We see shifts among major race/ethnicity groups as well. The largest are for blacks (3% lower) and for Asians (4.8% higher).

All these shifts and others reflect four major ways the SPM differs from the official measure — the base it proceeds from, adjustments it makes for certain basic living and other “necessary” costs, whom it includes as part of a family and what it counts as income.

This last gives us a glimpse — imperfect, but the best we’ve got — of how well some of our major federal anti-poverty measures work. And once again, we get reliable hard data proving that they do work, right-wing canards notwithstanding.

For example, we generally see lower deep poverty rates, i.e., the percent of the population overall or of a particular group that lived on incomes no greater than half the applicable poverty threshold — about $9,535 for a parent with two children.

The overall deep poverty rate is 1.6% lower than what the official measure produces. The deep poverty rate for children drops more markedly — from 9.7% to 4.3%.

The Census Bureau attributes the lower deep poverty rates to non-cash benefits targeted to low-income people — a type of income the SPM captures, while the official measure doesn’t. Seniors are the exception here, it notes.

Their deep poverty rate goes up to 5.1%, making it the same as the rate for the population as a whole. This is mainly because both the official measure and the SPM count Social Security benefits as income, but only the latter adjusts for medical out-of-pocket costs, along with others deducted from the base.

It’s nevertheless still the case that Social Security proves the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. Without Social Security benefits, half of all people 65 and over would fall below the poverty threshold.

The Census Bureau shows this and the effects of other benefits — mostly parts of the safety net — by deducting their value and displaying the new poverty rate.

So we learn, for example, that not counting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit would make the SPM poverty rate 3.1% higher. Little back-of-the-envelope math tells us that the tax credits effectively lifted about 9.8 million people out of poverty, including more than 5.2 million children.

SNAP (food stamp) benefits rank third among the anti-poverty impacts. They account for about 4.7 million fewer poor people, almost half of them children.

On the other hand, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits lifted only about 316,000 people above the poverty threshold — and so few in the working-age (18-64) group as to make no nick in their poverty rate whatever.

Now, the analysis doesn’t reflect the way benefits work in the real world. Most families that receive federally-funded help with their heating bills probably also get SNAP benefits, for example. Likewise low-income working families that get an annual budget boost from the refundable tax credits.

We don’t yet have an analysis that rolls all such safety net benefits together, though we do have one for 2012 that shows they cut the SPM poverty rate by nearly half and the child poverty rate by even more.

Do we nonetheless have policy lessons here? Well, of course, we do. Don’t want to try your patience, followers, but can’t restrain myself from flagging (flogging?) a few.

LIHEAP has become a pitiful thing, partly because it got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts, partly because this came on top of earlier cuts and partly because, in case you hadn’t noticed, home heating costs have increased.

So fewer households are getting such help as LIHEAP provides and they’re getting less — so much less that the average grant didn’t cover even two months of heating during the 2014-15 winter season.

Not going to see much improvement, if any so long as the Congressional Republican majority insists on keeping appropriations for non-defense programs below the caps set by the Budget Control Act. The House Appropriations Committee has, in fact, approved a $25 million cut for LIHEAP.

Changes in the refundable tax credits that help account for the effectiveness the SPM analysis indicates will expire at the end of 2017. And what seems a bipartisan sentiment in favor of expanding the EITC for childless workers is thus far little more than that — and not all that bipartisan, if we judge by cosponsors of bills pending in Congress.

Though SNAP clearly lifts people of all ages out of poverty, it doesn’t prevent a goodly number from going hungry at least some of the time. More about this in an upcoming post — and more perhaps about other issues one can tease out of the new SPM report.


Want to Know What Poor People Need? First Ask the Right Questions.

September 8, 2015

The National Diaper Bank Network responded to my post on diaper needs by alerting me to a new curriculum it developed in collaboration with other members of MOMS Partnership, a coalition of public agencies and private-sector organizations in New Haven, Connecticut.

The curriculum is for social service professions who assess the needs of poor and near-poor families and provide related care and/or referrals. It aims to inject attention to basic needs into what they do.

“Our instincts,” the Network’s Executive Director Joanne Goldblum says, “can lead us to habitually conclude that the best solutions to addressing chronic issues are referrals for more supports and services,” e.g., therapy, parenting classes, job skills training.

But solutions to what the professionals observe and ferret out in interviews could, in one respect, be a whole lot simpler and swifter — not to mention cheaper.

For example, a social worker visits a family. She sees piles of dirty laundry, dust bunnies everywhere, a toddler wandering around in a wet diaper.

She’s likely to conclude that the mother suffers from clinical depression — and her children perhaps from the sort of neglect that warrants the intervention of the child welfare agency.

But the mom may merely not have enough money for the laundromat and detergent, a vacuum sweeper and fresh diapers.

In short, the social worker sees a parent who needs to be fixed, rather than unmet basic needs she could readily identify if she just asked the right questions. They’re part of what she’d learn to ask in training based on the curriculum.

What would she do with the answers? What sort of referral, for example, could readily supply detergent and a sweeper — or the cash to buy them? What if the family’s not in a community where nonprofits distribute free diapers?

Goldblum, who helped develop the curriculum and now uses it in workshops, had a multi-part answer for me.

First, sensitized social service workers would advocate within their organizations for a basic needs line item in the budget or a more general fund they could tap to provide families with money for basic needs — or to buy them for the family.

Second, they would reach out to local voluntary groups that could donate items or initiate collections, like the diaper drives the Network promotes.

A number of social workers and nurses now spend their own money to supply basic needs, Goldblum told me. This is hardly a fair or sufficient solution, though it speaks well of the professionals who are perceptive and caring enough to dig into their own wallets for urgent needs.

Third, social service workers would advocate for public policies and programs that meet basic needs. They would, one hopes, try to engage their organizations and their networks, including their professional associations and online groups they belong to.

So how do we get from where we are to where we ought to be? Goldblum hopes the curriculum will, in the long run, help change both policies and practice.

But for both, she said, we need more “public conversation” about how social service professionals, policymakers and the rest of us feel about people in poverty. The conversation, if honest, would reveal that negative feelings about poor people aren’t confined to right-wingers whose diatribes and slurs we read in the press.

All this stuff about how poor parents are irresponsible. How they’re poor because they’ve made bad choices — and won’t pull themselves together to remedy the damage. How they don’t care about their children’s well-being. Etc.

Social services professionals themselves, the curriculum says, may make unconscious negative judgments based on “superficial factors” — smelly clothes, for example, or missed appointments.

They may have become somewhat jaded, I’m told, because poor clients do sometimes make unwise decisions — as do we all. Poverty itself, however, may make people prone to decisions that don’t serve their best interests.

A widely-reported study concluded that worries about financial problems take up so much mental “bandwidth” that people may not have enough left over for everyday challenges like resisting things they should — let alone for activities that could lift them out of poverty, e.g., looking for a better-paying job.

We’ve got other research indicating that poverty-related stress and “negative affective states,” e.g., unhappiness, make people “short-sighted and risk-averse” such that they’ll make decisions that perpetuate their poverty.

One formerly low-income mother achieved some celebrity — and a book contract — by blogging on her extraordinarily stressful life and reasons she made “bad” financial decisions. These include her feeling that they don’t matter because she “will never not be poor.”

Addressing basic needs won’t in itself get to the root causes of poverty. But it surely would relieve stress, misery and probably utter hopelessness.

After all, something troubling did get better. Someone in “the system” asked questions relevant to pressing everyday concerns, listened to figure out what could relieve them — and delivered.

None of this is to say that poor parents don’t, in some cases, have problems that call for therapy, parenting skills training and the like. But, Goldblum says, providers can’t effectively get to such problems until basic needs gaps are filled.

The curriculum has broader implications than might first appear. One is that it’s a model for developing agendas. As my title suggests, if you want to know what poor people need, ask them.

Another is that it seeks to engage advocates whose professional expertise and experiences would make them especially effective.

A third that strikes me is what the curriculum represents. Poverty is a large, complex problem. Goldblum and her MOMS Partnership colleagues clearly understand this.

But they didn’t just throw up their hands. They saw an opportunity to jump start a programmatic shift that could become larger and branch into the public policy sphere. This, in fact, is how Goldblum built a national network from an insight and a local fund-raising initiative.



Much to Like (Though Not Everything) in Draft TANF Bill

August 27, 2015

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources styles its bill to revamp Temporary Assistance for Needy Families a discussion draft, indicating that it’s still a work in progress. A good thing that, since as I’ve already said, it’s far from problem-free.

The biggest problem, to my mind — and the one that may prove the biggest sticking point — is its failure to increase the block grant, which gets divvied up among states to help cover program costs.

The draft nevertheless has enough promising features for us to hope that it addresses this and other problems progressive experts have flagged.

Here’s a summary of features that particularly struck me, with apologies to you policy wonks and service providers who understandably would like more details. The law and the rules that govern what states must, may and can’t do are dauntingly complex.

A New TANF Purpose. Surprising as it may seem, the general purposes Congress has defined for TANF don’t include poverty reduction. The discussion draft would.

What it wouldn’t do, however, is hold states accountable for reducing poverty among families that participated in their TANF programs. Nor for those their programs currently serve — let alone all they should.

A dismal record on several counts. The new purpose wouldn’t improve it. But at least one other feature could. (Read on.)

Expanded Work Activity Options. Few features of the current TANF law are as problematic as the limits on activities states can count toward their required work participation rates, i.e., the targets they supposedly have to hit to avert penalties. (Again, read on and you’ll understand why “supposedly.”)

On the one hand, we’ve got core activities, which states can count for all the hours they’re supposed to have parents engaged, and non-core activities, which states can count only for parents who engage in core activities for a specified minimum number of hours per week.

On the other hand, we’ve got limits on countable core activity time for participation in vocational education programs, other education programs directly related to employment and high school attendance. The first counts only for a year — and for no more than 30% of parents. The latter two only for parents still in their teens.

Together, these tend to deny TANF parents opportunities to gain the formal education credentials and marketable skills, including basic literacy, that will enable them to get jobs that pay enough to support themselves as their children — or indeed, any jobs at all.

One need only look at the unemployment rate for all but the youngest working-age adults who don’t have a high school diploma or the equivalent for evidence of one of the defects in the current scheme.

The draft would extend the vocational education limit to two years and the high school age limit to twenty-five. It leaves open the question of whether to adjust the voc. ed. cap.

It also loosens up countable time restrictions that could benefit TANF parents ready to enter the workforce — or far from ready. For example, states could count toward their work participation rates more job search time and more time in so-called job readiness activities like mental health counseling.

Simplified Work Participation Rate. What states can count toward their required work participation rates depends not only on how the rules classify activities, but on whether participants are in one-parent or two-parent families. More core activity hours required for the latter.

The end result of these various distinctions is a large administrative burden, as you can imagine. The director of a nonprofit partnership that provides TANF services recently testified that their career counselors spend more than half their time on documentation.

The draft would do away with both the core/non-core distinction and the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the higher work participation rate for parents who are living together. It would also allow states to get partial credit toward their rate for certain parents who participate for fewer hours than the standard minimum.

Steps Toward Accountability for Results. Though the draft doesn’t hold states accountable for poverty reduction, it does require them to measure two related outcomes — employment and median wages for parents who recently left the program.

States would have to measure these outcomes for all parents who no longer receive cash assistance, whether because they’ve moved from welfare to work or for some less hopeful reason, e.g., because they’d reached the end of their state’s time limit.

CLASP, among others, has alerted the subcommittee to problems with the outcome measures. But making states responsible for what their work-related services achieve, rather than merely parents’ participation in them is another smart, overdue move.

No More Caseload Reduction Credit. Many states have had a deuce of a time meeting the work participation rates. They face a penalty — loss of some of their block grant funds — if they don’t.

But they can avert the penalty by reducing the number of families they serve. They’ve thus got an incentive to keep eligible families out of their programs and to get those who’ve surmounted the barriers out — work-ready or otherwise.

As I’ve written before, states — and the District of Columbia — impose sanctions, up to and including full benefits cut-offs when parents don’t do what they’ve been told to. Or rather, when some authority decides they haven’t.

A family that’s lost its benefits altogether doesn’t count as part of the caseload. So it’s not surprising to learn that some agencies have seized on every occasion to impose so-called full family sanctions — or in some cases, reportedly trumped one up.

The discussion draft would eliminate the caseload reduction credit — and thus, one hopes, overuse of sanctions, which inevitably punish children.

These aren’t the only features that make the draft a surprisingly strong step toward improving the altogether worst part of our safety net. (Ruthless cutting here to control post length.)

What will come of the draft remains to be seen. But we can at least hope for a bill with all the draft’s good features, plus good revisions, good answers to the open questions and a substantial block grant increase.

Better that than to focus on the hurdles such a bill would have to clear to get to the President’s desk.

Note: Those of you who wish I’d left the other features in may find them in two of the publicly accessible sources I used — comments by CLASP’s chief TANF expert and testimony by her counterpart at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.



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