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.

 

 

 

 


House GOP Puts Disabled Workers at Needless Risk

January 26, 2015

Seems when minds are made up, they won’t be confused by facts. Consider, for example, Senator (and Presidential-hopeful) Rand Paul (R-KY) on the subject of SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance).

“[W]hen you look like me and hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting your disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club.”

Blogger Steve Benen refutes Paul’s “over half” and the barely-submerged allegation of fraud with hard data from the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General, which, as he says, are basically the same as findings by the Government Accountability Office.

What’s so depressing is that we’ve been round this barn over and over again. Someone — an NPR reporter, for example, or a Fox News talking head — asserts that a lot of SSDI recipients could work if they wanted to, but instead have managed to get disability benefits based on “squishy” diagnoses or out-in-out fraud.

Analysts, advocates and responsible bloggers cite data showing, among other things, how stringent SSDI eligibility standards are, how few recipients can work at all, let alone ever earn enough to support themselves again, and how modest the benefits are — far too low for someone to choose them over gainful work.

Rebecca Vallas, whose post I linked to above, has written substantially the same thing so often I believe she could probably do it in her sleep.

What’s even more depressing is that the House Republican majority has now put SSDI recipients in unnecessary peril, relying, it seems, on the oft-debunked claims.

As I’ve written before, the trust fund that helps pay for SSDI benefits will run out of reserves in 2016. This has long been expected. And it has nothing to do with freeloaders, fraudsters or the difficulties jobless workers have had finding new employment due to the Great Recession.

Instead, the number of SSDI beneficiaries has grown in part because baby boomers are getting to the age where disabilities become more common and in part because more women are working — and working enough — to qualify.

A third factor — ironic in this context — is that Congress raised the eligibility age for full retirement benefits to help stave off a shortfall in the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund, i.e., the one intended to ensure those benefits get paid in full.

In ordinary times, Congress would simply shift some payroll taxes that go to the OASI trust fund to the DI trust fund. It’s made such shifts 11 times — sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other.

Doing that now to protect disability benefits would have little effect on the OASI trust fund. It would merely run out of reserves one year earlier, while the DI trust fund would have enough to pay full benefits until the same year — this assuming Congress adopted the Social Security actuaries’ solvency scheme.

None of this matters a whit to Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY), who cosponsored a change in the House rules that effectively prevents any such shoring up of what he calls “a failing federal program.” You see how these unfounded attacks take hold in receptive minds?

No one, I think, questions the need to ensure that the OASI trust fund doesn’t run dry in about 20 years. But the long-term solution for both trust funds, which Reed claims he wants to force, will surely not emerge as law before 2016.

So the House rule, in effect, sets the stage for SSDI benefit cuts estimated at 19% in less than two years. These benefits now average $1,165 a month — less than $200 above the poverty level for a one-person household. Benefits for disabled workers’ spouses and children are far less.

Not surprising then that 44% of younger SSDI recipients, i.e., those 31-49 years old, are poor or near-poor, mostly the former. These are hardly people who can afford to lose close to a fifth of what’s probably their only source of cash income. And they’re many years away from eligibility for retirement benefits — even the reduced benefits they could get at 62.

Monique Morrissey at the Economic Policy Institute views the House rule as “largely symbolic,” since a simple majority can overturn it. And indeed it may if the benefit cuts become an immediate reality — in an election year too, she adds.

But in the meantime, the Republicans have leverage for any of a range of Social Security “reforms.” Morrissey notes recent references to such old warhorses as raising the retirement age (again), replacing social insurance altogether with private investment accounts and/or further means testing — perhaps a phase-out to zero for high-income seniors.

Will seniors, workers who hope they’ll live to be and organizations representing them take kindly to any of these? Faced with the possibilities, will they be told that the only alternative is to keep those other folks from draining the trust fund, as Morrissey predicts?

We’ve already got framing that pits the old against the young. Last thing we need is a spin-off into a conflict between the legitimate needs of seniors and those of younger people with severe disabilities.

And as I, joining many others, have said, it’s wholly unnecessary.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I came, somewhat belatedly, upon a post by Josh Marshall, the top dog at Talking Points Memo. He foresees the sort of conflict I refer to and calls it a deliberate “plan to set different classes of Social Security recipients against each other in a zero sum for scarce dollars when in fact the scarcity is manufactured.”


New Hunger Crisis Looms

January 15, 2015

Approximately 1 million low-income — mostly very poor — people may soon have little or nothing to eat, except what charitable organizations can provide. This isn’t one of those crises we read about in some far-off country devastated by drought, locusts or internal warfare. It’s right here in the U.S. and the result of policy choices.

The 1 million or so people will lose their SNAP (food stamp) benefits in 2016. They’ve done nothing wrong, except to be between the ages of 18 and 50 and to have neither a certified disability that prevents them from working nor a family member who depends on them for care.

As I’ve written before, these so-called able-bodied adults without dependents are generally limited to three months of SNAP benefits within any three-year period unless they’re working at least half time or participating in a job training or workfare program, i.e., an arrangement whereby they work, usually for a public agency, in exchange for their benefits.

The law that sets this limit allows state to request a waiver, either for the state as a whole or for specific areas, when the unemployment rate is extraordinarily high.

The Recovery Act temporarily suspended the time limit nationwide through September 2010. Most states and the District of Columbia asked for and got waivers after that. But the waivers are already disappearing — in some cases, because Republican governors chose not to ask for them.

“We should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,” says Maine Governor LePage, voicing what one suspects is a common view among his counterparts.

Now unemployment rates in most parts of the country are dropping to the point where states will have, at most, waivers for some deeply depressed areas, even if they’re not hostile to the concept.

This doesn’t mean that the ABAWDs can find jobs if they just try hard enough, however. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, about half have only a high school diploma or the equivalent — and a quarter have neither.

They may still land low-paying service sector jobs. But these won’t necessarily ensure 20 hours a week on a regular basis.

Some will have a hard time getting any job at all. In a county in Ohio that lost its waiver because Governor John Kasich decided to narrowly target his request, more than 34% of ABAWDs has a criminal record — a high barrier to employment, as we know.

The problem goes well beyond dim job prospects because the end of a waiver doesn’t mean that ABAWDs can continue receiving SNAP benefits if they comply with the alternative work requirements.

In fact, as CBPP explains, it’s misleading to call the job training/workfare alternatives work requirements because they’re quite different from the work requirements we’re familiar with in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Though parents in TANF are generally required to participate in a work preparation program if they’re not actually working, they’re not penalized with a benefits loss if there’s no space for them in an appropriate program. Nor are they penalized if they’re actively looking for a job, but haven’t yet found one.

By contrast, states have no obligation to ensure that at-risk ABAWDs can get into a work preparation or workfare program. They generally don’t, CBPP reports. This is in part because SNAP education and training funds fall short of the need. But it’s also because states tend to give preference to other SNAP recipients, e.g., parents with dependent children.

As if that weren’t enough, the law that sets the time limit doesn’t recognize job searches as a qualifying activity. So there’s really nothing that unemployed (and underemployed) ABAWDs can do to retain the generally modest, but crucial SNAP benefits they’ve gotten.

Unimaginable that the majority who lose their benefits can scrape up the money to feed themselves, as CBPP’s brief clearly shows. Their gross incomes average 19% of the federal poverty line — about $2,217 for a single person this year.

About 82% live in households with total incomes below half the FPL — less than $11,925 per year for a four-person household. How will people as poor as this make up for the loss of nutrition assistance averaging $150-$200 a month?

Congress could extend a lifeline to ABAWDs. It could, for example, change the so-called work requirement so that states would have to offer either a job or a slot in a job training or workfare program.

It could include job searches as qualifying work activities. It could at least stretch the time limit to six months — the average amount of time childless adults received SNAP benefits before they were time-limited.

It could increase federal funding for the basic SNAP employment and training grants — currently just $90 million a year.

Is this Congress going to do any of these things? A rhetorical question. So, CBPP says, states should give community groups and service providers advance warning.

Food banks and the programs they help supply surely should know that they’re likely to face even more — and more frequent — requests for free groceries and/or meals. CBPP cites other providers likely to face increased needs for services — or in the case of healthcare clinics, effects on patients they’re already serving.

Advance warning is, of course, better than surprise. But what the nonprofits can do with the heads-up is a question mark. It’s not as if they’ve stayed silent on their needs for private donations, as many of us with email accounts can testify.

Those of us with the wherewithal can hearken such requests. But as Bread for the World’s president said some time ago, “[W]e cannot ‘food-bank’ our way out of hunger…. [W]e need to change the politics.”

The impending plight of ABAWDs cries out for that. But who in the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is listening?

 


DC TANF Families Face Benefits Cut-Offs With Dim Prospects for Steady Work

December 8, 2014

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 198 other followers