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.

 


Hopes for a Better TANF Program Undercut by Lack of Funding

August 24, 2015

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families just had its 19th birthday. It’s long overdue for an overhaul. And we just may see one before the end of the year.

Congress last reauthorized TANF 10 years ago. By and large, it made a flawed program worse — assuming, as I think we should, that it’s supposed to provide a safety net for poor families, while helping parents prepare for and find jobs that enable them to support themselves and their children.

Now the House subcommittee responsible for TANF seems poised to finish a reauthorization bill. And surprisingly, the discussion draft responds to concerns that progressive advocates, as well as some state administrators have raised for a long time.

I say “surprisingly” not only because Republicans control the subcommittee, but because Congressman Paul Ryan, who now chairs the full Ways and Means Committee, has often cited TANF as the model safety net program.

The bill, which is still a work in progress, is far from problem-free. Most importantly, it fails to do one big thing. And that will mean either no new law or some harmful consequences.

The one big thing is to boost the block grant — the federal government’s share of money for the benefits and services states’ programs provide. It’s been stuck at the same level as when TANF began. So it’s lost about a third of its real dollar value.

The draft would provide not a penny more. At the same time, it would require states to do two things they don’t have to do now — develop genuinely individualized plans for TANF families and track employment-related outcomes for those that leave the program.

The new mandates are surely promising, though the latter warrants revisions, as CLASP’s detailed comments show. They would also, however, require investments of administrative resources.

Other changes would tend to offset the administrative burden, but states would still come up short on funds to make those outcomes as good as they might otherwise be.

At the same time, the draft would eliminate the TANF Contingency Fund — a pot of money that states can tap (until it runs dry) when a recession or other hit to their economy indicates they’ll have more families to serve.

States would have as much flexibility as ever to cope with funding crunches by dropping their already-low income eligibility ceilings, reducing the lifetime time limits for participation, as some states have eagerly done, and/or by other measures to shrink their caseloads, e.g., pre-enrollment job search requirements, costly, ineffective, but still humiliating drug tests.

The draft would eliminate a major incentive states have to do reduce their caseloads by any or all of these, as well as by doling out so-called full family sanctions, i.e., total benefits cut-offs, which also reduce the caseload count.

But the fixed block grant funding level, plus the loss of extra funds in extra-bad times would leave states with another incentive to serve as few families as they can — and to forgo their new opportunities to improve employment prospects for those they do.

I’ll return to the promising features I’ve referred to — and a couple I haven’t — in a separate post. I’ve begun with the big problem because they’ll all be for naught if the federal government fails to do its share for our country’s poorest families, as it has — and increasingly so — for most of the last 19 years.

 


Steps Toward Helping Low-Income People Get Connected to the Internet

June 22, 2015

You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have swift, reliable access to the internet. You couldn’t be reading it if I didn’t.

We all, I suppose, take our high-speed connections for granted — except when our service is interrupted. Yet costs are apparently a barrier for well over half of our country’s poorest households. And that barrier is a barrier to many opportunities we also take for granted.

Two Democratic Senators and a Congresswoman, also a Democrat, have proposed a bill that could enable low-income people to afford broadband connections. The Federal Communications Commission has just voted to explore a somewhat similar plan the Chairman floated,  thanks to the Democratic majority there.

Both would expand the Lifeline Assistance program, which currently provides low-income households with discounts for landline or cell phone service. It’s what you may have heard of as free Obama phones, an allegedly fraudulent, wasteful use of our taxpayer dollars — another liberal “dole-out to dead beats” on welfare.

But the phone service isn’t free. And though welfare recipients are poor enough to qualify for discounts, eligibility extends to households at or below 135% of the federal poverty line and to some whose incomes are higher, e.g., certain recipients of federal housing vouchers.

The dollars that pay for the discounts don’t come out of our federal taxes. They’re often collected as one of those mysterious charges tacked onto our monthly phone rate. And the Lifeline program dates back to the notoriously liberal Reagan administration.

Both the Democrats’ bill and the FCC Chairman’s plan seek to bridge the so-called digital divide — a marked disparity in ready access to a broadband connection that’s increasingly income based. In 2013, only 42% of the poorest households had high-speed internet service in their homes, as compared to 90% of those with incomes of at least $100,000.*

Don’t suppose I need to say that children are now expected to do homework involving internet use or that it’s all but impossible to find and apply for jobs, except via the internet. Far less possible these days to develop job-related skills and networks — or to keep up with relevant news.

So it would seem that a Lifeline expansion would make it somewhat easier to move up from the bottom of the income scale. It could also lead to better opportunities in other ways, e.g., by creating a broader base of informed, engaged voters.

Neither the FCC Chairman’s plan nor the Congressional Democrats’ seems like quite the right answer, however. Both would require Lifeline beneficiaries to choose between a high-speed connection and phone service.

And the Chairman apparently envisions the same subsidy — just $9.25 a month. That’s obviously less than what companies generally charge for phone service.

It’s a much smaller fraction of a DSL connection, which cost, on average, $59.40 a month two years ago, according to an FCC estimate. Hard to imagine that many poor and near-poor households would pick up the whole cost of phone service, plus anything close to $50 a month.

Harder to imagine many would opt for the ‘net instead of a phone, if for no other reason than safety.

My mother-in-law, for example, is now in her mid-90s and coping with frailities common to someone of her age, e.g., a tendency to lose her balance and fall. She has one of those low-cost phone services, with an automatic dial for emergencies.

It’s been a genuine lifeline for her — and one I’m sure she’ll never swap for the chance to see photos of her grandchildren online or keep up with local news now that her hometown paper is delivered only three days a week.

The Democrats’ bill would direct the FCC to monitor prevailing broadband access prices, as well as some other relevant information, e.g., the prevailing speed households use. The agency would use these findings to set the subsidy rate.

Where the extra money would come from isn’t clear — at least, to me. If from a hike in the Universal Service Fund fee (our contribution to the subsidies), we should expect pushback. If not that, what?

The FCC will probably adopt some fleshed-out version of the Chairman’s plan. But the initiative itself will almost surely into flack on Capitol Hill, as The New York Times has predicted.

Not much enthusiasm for broadband expansion there. Only nine more Senators and House members have signed on to the proposed Broadband Expansion Act. Not a single Republican.

So it’s far from certain that we’ll soon help low-income people gain home-based access to the diverse opportunities the internet offers. And as I’ve suggested, the proposals seem problematic.

On the other hand, some influential policymakers have recognized a problem and come up with an approach to solving it. If it needs tweaks and/or clarifications, well, that’s what rulemaking and legislative processes are for.

So as with many issues affecting low-income people (and others), this one boils down to political will. Which in this case (and others), boils down to how we choose to view those low-income people and our government’s role in helping them surmount barriers that marginalize them.

* The FCC Chairman cites somewhat higher percents, based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The differences reflect differences in the income bands the ACS analysis and my source, Pew Research, use.


What Could Lift More Seniors Out of Poverty?

May 26, 2015

The senior poverty rate, according to the official measure, is lower than the rate for the U.S. population as a whole and considerably lower than the child poverty rate. It still translates into about 4.2 million people 65 and older whose incomes fell below the applicable poverty threshold last year — just $11,354 for those who live alone.

The more accurate Supplemental Poverty Measure boosts the senior poverty rate to 14.6% — about 2.3 million more people. But for Social Security benefits, the rate would have been a whopping 52.6%. This is why Social Security is justifiably called the most effective anti-poverty program we have.

Yet we do still have some 6.5 million seniors without enough income to live on. And our poverty prevention measures tend to focus on younger people, as Kevin Prindiville, the Executive Director of Justice in Aging, says.

We’ve got a battery of programs to support education and work-related training, for example. And we’ve got a spectrum of programs to prevent — or at the very least, reduce — poverty among those who find work, especially those with dependent family members. In other words, it’s not just younger people our measures focus on, but working families.

All too late, Prindiville observes, for someone in her 70s or 80s who’s struggling now after a lifetime of low-wage jobs. “We cannot just hold up our hands and say we should have helped … [seniors] 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago.”

So what would help them now? Prindiville proposes a five-step plan. He’s managed to get them into a single, compact post. I, as usual, want to flesh out the issues and solutions.

So I’ll deal here with the first two, overlapping steps and leave the remaining three for a followup.

Strengthen the Existing Safety Net and Social Insurance Programs*

Social Security, SSI (Supplemental Security Income), Medicare and Medicaid largely account for the 26% drop in the official senior poverty rate since 1960, Prindiville says. First and foremost, we need to protect them.

None of those proposed Social Security benefits cuts, increased Medicare cost-sharing, e.g., through a voucher plan, or tighter limits on Medicaid coverage, which we could expect to see under the Congressional Republicans’ upcoming block grant proposals.

On the strengthening side, I suppose Prindiville would endorse the latest version of what was originally the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013.

It would change the benefits formula, providing an average of $65 a month more, and base annual adjustments on an as-yet-to-be-completed Consumer Price Index specifically for the elderly. And unlike the 2013 bill, it would ensure that formerly low-wage workers receive benefits at least big enough to lift them over the poverty line, provided they’d worked at least 10 years.

Of course, like its predecessor, the current bill would also keep the Social Security Trust Fund from coming up short on the money needed to pay full benefits past its projected insolvency in 2033.

Rather than simply scrapping the cap on payroll taxes, as some have proposed, it would trigger taxes on all income — not only wage income — over $250,000.

Improve Supplemental Security Income

Let’s just say proposals to boost Social Security retirement benefits won’t go anywhere in this Congress. So we’ll still have seniors in poverty.

We would anyway because not all seniors used to work — or have spouses that did. And even a work history often won’t yield a benefit anyone can live on unless it spans at least 35 years — this because of the way the Social Security Administration calculates benefits.

For the poorest 2.1 million seniors, SSI provides a safety net. But it’s in need of strengthening too. The maximum benefit — currently $733 a month — is nearly $250 less than would be needed to lift a single person over the poverty line.

No benefits at all for individuals whose savings and other “countable resources” are worth more than $2,000. Nor for couples who’ve more than $3,000. So seniors who’ve saved even a modest amount don’t qualify, though they surely need some stash they can draw on for expenses like Medicare deductibles and co-pays.

And as I’ve written before, the formula for SSI benefits adjusts them downward, based on other income beneficiaries receive. The adjustments kick in only if income exceeds a certain amount, however.

We see a preference for income earned from work — understandable, since it encourages SSI recipients to enter (or reenter) the workforce. For other income, the exclusion — or disregard, as Prindiville calls it — is a mere $20 a month, plus the value of a few other public benefits.

The benefits reduction for other income is dollar-for-dollar — twice as much as for wage income. This isn’t a problem for seniors only. But it’s a big problem for them because they’ll lose as much as they gain from even a piddling increase in Social Security retirement benefits.

Congress hasn’t updated the exclusions since it created the program in 1972. If they’d been adjusted to reflect consumer price increases, the unearned income exclusion would be roughly $112 today.

Bills that died in the last Congress would have addressed these problems, as well as what can be large benefits reductions when a friend of relative helps out with food, housing costs and/or utility bills.

Prindiville says he expects the bills to be introduced again this spring. Nothing thus far, but they probably will be — whether to be better fate remains to be seen. Not holding my breath, folks.

* Prindiville’s top-line recommendation implies that Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare are safety net programs like SSI and Medicaid, but they’re insurance programs because workers pay premiums of a sort, as payroll taxes. I’ve modified the recommendation accordingly because I, among others, feel it’s important to preserve the distinction.


DC TANF Program Short-Changed Core Purposes

April 23, 2015

My last post focused on the “cautionary tale” we can find in how states spent their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. Now here, as promised, is what we learn about the District of Columbia’s TANF spending.*

The figures are somewhat dated, but they’re still relevant to decisions the DC Council must make as it works on the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The District reported $254 million spent on TANF in 2013. Twenty-three percent went for cash assistance. This is a tad higher than the percent reported for 2012. But a family of three was still left at 26% of the federal poverty line. And that’s about where it is now, unless it’s one of the 6,300 families whose benefits have been cut three times already.

They’ll get zero, come October if the Council doesn’t approve the Mayor’s proposal to give them a one-year reprieve. Even if it does, our three-person family will have to get along somehow on $156 a month — roughly 9% of the current FPL.

The Bowser administration justifies the reprieve on the basis of continuing weaknesses in the employment component of the District’s TANF program.

I’ve previously reported the results of an audit that focused on outcomes for the parents facing benefit cut-offs who were actually referred to a contractor for job training and/or help in finding a job. Not encouraging.

But there are two other parts to this story. One is that some parents have had to wait for nearly a year to get those job-related services. This may be in part because the Gray administration froze additional funds for them.

And that’s perhaps because the Department of Human Services didn’t spend all the TANF employment funds in its budget, according to the new director. We certainly see what seems to be under-spending in the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report I’m using here.

Only 15% of TANF funds spent on work-related activities in 2013. And even this was a marked improvement over 2012, when only 7% went for what surely ought to be a top priority for a TANF program.

At the same time, the District spent an unusually low percent of its TANF funds on administration and systems — 2%, as compared to a nationwide 7%.

This matters because the DC Council enacted exemptions from the benefits phase-out for families facing specified hardships, i.e., difficulties, beyond the usual, that parents would face trying to support themselves and their kids.

One, added for the current year, would temporarily stop the time clock for mothers with infants to care for. But the department hasn’t actually granted this exemption. The reason, we’re told, is that it doesn’t have the computer capacity to suspend time-counting for the moms and their babies.

I personally believe that the TANF time limits merit rethinking altogether. DHS itself is looking into a policy that would convert the one-time hardship exemptions for at least some of the designated families and perhaps others into hardship extensions, as federal law has always allowed.

But that’s not even on the drawing board yet. The proposed reprieve is on the Council’s must-decide agenda.

A rollback of the benefits cuts should be too, given what we know about job training waiting lists — and the many months families had to wait for the assessments used to decide what training and/or other services they should get to give them a reasonable chance of success in the workplace.

Beyond these obviously urgent issues, the Council should, I think, take a hard look at how DHS spends its TANF dollars. In 2013, the department spent nearly as much on “non-assistance” as on work activities. What’s in this catch-all category is a mystery. Not the department’s fault, but rather a flaw in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ reporting format.

The new DHS director, unlike her predecessor, shared a break-out of TANF spending with parties interested enough to have attended a recent briefing. Some money here, some there, some someplace else.

I doubt the Council has ever delved into the dispersal of TANF funds. Every dollar may support something worthwhile. But the mechanism is hardly responsible — let alone transparent — budgeting.

And it inevitably diverts funds from cash support for very poor families and from work-related services that can help the parents get to the point where they can pay for their families needs.

These, I think most of us view as core purposes of the TANF program. And both the CBPP report and everything else we know suggests they’re being shorted.

* The TANF funds spent include the District’s federal block grant share and what it claimed as its maintenance of effort, i.e., what it spent of its own funds, plus funds that some nonprofits spent on at least on of the program’s four major goals.

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this post, I learned of a petition the Fair Budget Coalition has created to drum up Council support for the proposed reprieve. Some on the Council, I’m told, are in need of persuasion. So I hope those of you who are District residents will sign. You’ll find the petition here.


Not Much Spent to Move Families From Welfare to Work

April 20, 2015

Nothing new in the big picture we get from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ update on how states spend their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. But even the same-old is timely, both because of what’s going on at the federal level and because we’ve got things brewing here in the District of Columbia.

I’m going to split these into two posts because the pressing issues are as different as the proclivities of the majorities in the Capitol building and those of the leaders in the city its dome looms over.

State spending and the federal policy implications first.

As you may know, Republicans on Capitol Hill — and conservatives they listen to — still view TANF as the model anti-poverty program. Time limits, rigid work requirements, lots of state flexibility and an ever-diminishing fraction of the federal budget. What’s not, for them, to like?

So we see another House budget plan that would convert both Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) to block grants somewhat like TANF. States would get a fixed amount of funding, no matter what befalls their economies or drives up needs for other reasons. They would have the flexibility to reduce benefits and/or further restrict eligibility so as to manage with what they get.

States have had such flexibility — and then some — since welfare as we knew it ended in 1996. And they’ve received the same dollar amount in block-grant funds ever since.

Most of us, I think believe TANF should do two main things. It should provide a safety net for poor families with children. And it should help the parents get to the point where they can earn enough to pay for their families’ needs.

Yet states spent, on average, 28% of their TANF funds* on cash assistance in 2013, the latest year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported figures for. Even states that spent higher percents provided benefits too low to lift a family of three out of deep poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.

More remarkably, states spent, on average, just 8% of their TANF funds on work activities and supports to make participating in these activities possible, e.g., childcare subsidies, transportation.

Large disparities among states, as you might imagine. Yet every state spent at least some funds on programs not exclusively — or even primarily — for TANF-eligible families, e.g., child welfare services, Earned Income Tax Credit refunds, early childhood education.

However worthy these may be, states seem to be using their flexibility to shore them up at the expense of essential supports and services for TANF families. A dozen states spent at least half their TANF funds this way.

In short, a “cautionary tale,” as CBPP calls this prime example of the block-granting approach to safety-net programs.

* Here and throughout this post, TANF funds include federal block grant funds and what states claimed as their maintenance of effort, i.e. what they spent of their own funds and, in some cases, funds that nonprofits spent on any of the program’s four major goals.


When the Safety Net’s Ripped, the Babies Will Fall … and the Rest of the Family Too

February 17, 2015

In less than eight months, some 6,000 families in the District of Columbia will have no cash income whatever, unless the parents can land jobs PDQ. Most probably won’t because they would have if they could have.

The families I’m referring to have participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 or more months. The benefits they’ve received have been, at best, extremely low — $428 a month for a parent with two children.

But their benefits have already been slashed. Our three-person TANF family facing a cut-off now receives $152 a month. Is this what a parent would choose over paying work of any legal kind, assuming s/he’s got someone to care for the kids?

Of course not. The parents who’ve perforce depended on TANF for a long time or recurrently often have what are euphemistically called severe barriers to work, e.g., debilitating physical and/or mental health problems, domestic violence trauma, functional illiteracy.

The District’s TANF program will count time spent receiving services to help overcome such barriers as compliance with its work activity requirements. But it won’t stop the clock ticking toward the cut-off date, except for the relatively few  parents who’ve been shifted out of TANF into a locally-funded program.

Most parents used to be placed in programs designed to get them into the workforce quickly, regardless of their needs and skills. No real attention to whether they could stay in the workforce. Most didn’t, as even the District’s short-term tracking showed.

Then the Department of Human Services revamped the TANF program, providing for individualized assessments and a range of services, including more diverse education and job training options. But time spent in the flawed program still counts toward the 60 months.

And parents who were deemed work-ready, either initially or after some “barrier-removal” services, had to wait for job training because the budget didn’t fund enough slots. Again, the clock kept ticking.

Now Mayor Bowser and the DC Council can let these very poor parents and their children fall into utter destitution or decide that the 60-month limit is, at the very least, too rigid, if not a bad idea altogether.

When they consider the options, as one hopes they will, they should recall that the Council hastily adopted the time limit as part of a budget-gap closing package that then-Chairman Vincent Gray pushed through shortly before he became mayor.

At least some Councilmembers — and we the public — were sold a bill of goods when a less draconian version of the benefits cut-off surfaced in the original gap-closing bill. DHS called it a measure “to more closely align with federal policy.”

But, as I said at the time, nothing in federal policy compels states or the District to cut — let alone end — TANF benefits at the end of five years. The rules only prohibit the use of federal funds to help pay for them.

And not altogether. States and the District may use federal funds to extend benefits for up to 20% of their average monthly caseload based on “hardship or domestic violence.” About 20 states do, in one form or another. The District has taken a pass. It exempts parents from their regular work requirements, but it keeps the clock running. And, as I already said, it set the clock to start when TANF families first enrolled.

So more than 6,100 families lost a portion of their benefits with virtually no warning — and little or no chance to first improve their employment prospects through the new, improved assessment and referral process.

Many would still have faced high barriers — not only those I’ve mentioned, but others that some states count as “hardship,” e.g., the need to care for a chronically ill or severely disabled child.

And then there’s that barrier confronting all local job seekers who don’t have a college degree. Last year, 19% of District residents without a high school diploma couldn’t find work, even part-time. The unemployment rate for those with, but no more was only 1% lower.

So we’ve undoubtedly got TANF parents who’ve been putting in their required work activity hours searching for a job, but to no avail. Yet we’re about to punish them — and their children — further by cutting off their benefits.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s recommendations to the Mayor and Council include a temporary, renewable benefits extension for parents up against the time limit when they can’t find a job that offers enough hours for them to make ends meet.

Some other parents should get extensions too, it says — those who aren’t yet work-ready, for example, and those with the kinds of significant barriers I cited above. It also recommends extensions when families will otherwise suffer “serious hardship,” e.g., homelessness.

One can make lots of arguments, moral and pragmatic, for protecting families from the benefits reductions and cut-offs they face under the current law.

Among the most pressing of both sorts is what’s providing to be an unprecedented homeless family crisis. Stingy TANF benefits help explain it — as, of course, do the even stingier benefits the 60-month families are getting.

But there are still families who’ve managed to stay housed, at least for awhile — by doubling-up (or tripling-up) with other low-income families, for example, or by contributing to the household expenses of a hospitable friend of relative.

These arrangements are by no means ideal for the children, since housing instability of any sort tends to harm them — and in ways that have lasting effects. But they’re better for them than living in the DC General shelter — or on the streets when it’s not cold enough for them to get in.

And they’re better than the cut-offs for the District’s budget too, though I’d like to think our policymakers will take a broader view of their responsibilities when they decide whether to extend a lifeline to at-risk TANF families.

 

 

 

 


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