In early 2012, the D.C. Department of Human Services launched a redesigned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. As with TANF programs nationwide, it aimed to move very poor parents with children toward self-sufficiency, i.e., work that pays enough to support the family — or at the very least, too much to make them still eligible for TANF.
Now we have an in-depth, though partial view of the results. A recently-completed review of the TANF employment component found, among other things, that fewer than half the target group of parents who, with help, had found jobs were still employed.
But even this finding overstates the self-sufficiency prospects for the more than 6,000 families who may soon have no cash income whatever because the DC Council set a retroactive 60-month lifetime limit on benefits in late 2010 and a phase-out schedule ending in total cut-offs next October.
About the Review
The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor analyzed data and other information that DHS provided, with a view toward providing the basis for some conclusions about the outcome of what it refers to as the TANF Employment Program.
The program consists of two related types of services — work readiness and job placement. Both are provided by contractors. Work readiness contractors, as the term suggests, are supposed to help parents strengthen their qualifications for paying work.
But they are responsible for helping the parents find jobs as well. This is the only thing the job placement contracts are supposed to do because the parents assigned to them have been deemed ready to work.
The auditors focused only on parents who had received TANF benefits for more than 60 months because these were the parents whom DC Council Human Services Committee Chairman Jim Graham asked about.
They looked at data collected over about 32 months — from the time the new employment program began, in February 2012, to October 24, 2014. Graham wanted results by early November.
So the auditors were up against a tight timeframe. As a result, they’re careful to say, they didn’t verify what they got from DHS, as they ordinarily would.
Jobs of Any Sort for Fewer Than Half
Though the two types of employment services differ in scope, they’re both intended to get TANF parents into — or back into — the workforce and earning enough to no longer qualify for TANF. For a family of three, that would have been anything over $588 a month in 2012-13, assuming no other income.
The auditors report that about 49% of parents referred to an employment services contractor got a job — 6,145 out of 12,463. Only about 38% got jobs that could have provided steady, full-time work.
The rest got placed in jobs that were either part-time or “temporary/seasonal” — the latter presumably referring to temporary or on-and-off jobs during periods of high-volume business like the holiday shopping season.
Wide Pay Range, Including Less Than Minimum Wage
While working, the parents got paid an average of $10.58 an hour — more than the District’s minimum wage, but less than its living wage, which is now $13.60 an hour and was less during the two prior years the audit covered.
The average masks a wide disparity in pay rates. A relative few jobs paid in the $21-$50 an hour range. A far greater number — nearly 1,590 — reportedly paid less than the District’s minimum wage.
The auditors suggested (not in the report) that contractors may have reported the minimum cash wage parents got when placed in jobs that employers chose to pay at the tip-credit wage rate.
But the District’s tip credit wage is lower than most of the subminimum wages indicated. DHS perhaps could explain, but hasn’t, though I asked.
Steady Work for Very Few
As of mid-October, 2,976 TANF parents were employed — about 48% of those who’d been placed. Only 770 remained in the jobs were they’d been placed for more than six months.
We see a drop-off beginning at the end of the first month. (The auditors don’t report a figure for parents who lost their jobs or quit sooner.) Their figures do, however, show that 835 parents didn’t have their jobs any more by the time the fourth month rolled round.
Whether they’d been placed in other jobs is an open question. Indeed, the job tenure figures may not tell the whole story.
DHS informed the auditors that an estimated 3,076 “customers” in the 60-month-and-over group had left the program — a majority, it said, because they began earning too much to remain eligible. No supporting data provided.
And the agency doesn’t know whether “customers” who did earn more than the minimal maximum for eligibility remained employed — let alone how gainfully — because it doesn’t track families once they leave the program.
More Knowns and Unknowns
First off, we should recall that the auditors focused solely on parents who’d been in the District’s TANF program for quite a long time — or had cycled in and out for even longer. Results for parents who had recourse to TANF because of some singular, temporary setback might be different.
On the other hand, the parents in the sample didn’t include those whom DHS had identified as having significant, ongoing health and/or personal barriers to work, e.g., alcoholism or drug addiction, PTSD due to domestic violence.
About 60% of the rest weren’t immediately work-ready, according to the agency’s assessments. It assigned them to contractors for further education and/or development of marketable skills. Fewer than 10% completed their programs.
Does this mean they were hustled into jobs they couldn’t keep because contractors get a bonus for placements? Or did they themselves get desperate because their very low benefits had shrunk — and were soon to disappear?
Did the fact they had to scramble every day to find a place for their family to spend the night — or some used clothing for their kids — make it just too hard to satisfy the work readiness requirements and, more importantly, their employers’ expectations?
Do we need a thoroughgoing, independent assessment of the TANF employment program? Sure does seem that way.