Thanksgiving Thoughts On Safety Nets

November 23, 2010

Let me be up front about this. I’m having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit.

I know I’ve got an enormous amount to be thankful for — my health, my loving and ever-patient husband, my home, which is now fully restored from the fire damage of two winters ago, friends, an extended family, including a wonderful second mother, an occupation and a nest egg that should keep us secure through our “golden years.”

But I can’t stop thinking about the millions of Americans who can’t count all these blessings — and who are now dependent on a tattered safety net that’s likely to be yanked out from under them. Surely will be if the Republicans in Congress stand fast on their pledge to drastically roll back federal spending.

I’m acutely anxious for those whose plight I know best — my fellow District of Columbia residents. So many unemployed or in jobs that don’t pay enough for them to afford the high cost of living here. A chronic problem made worse by the recession. For many of them, an upswing in the local job market won’t be enough.

Budget cuts have already damaged the local safety net. And now we’re told there have to be more cuts to get the budget back in balance. Councilmember Jack Evans is all for this. “Make as many cuts as possible,” he says, “so we can stay away from revenue hikes.”

I’m thankful not all Councilmembers share his view — especially thankful for my own Councilmember Tommy Wells’s outspoken support for a tax increase.

He’s of course concerned about the safety net programs under the jurisdiction of the Human Services Committee he chairs. But the argument he’s making for progressive reforms in our tax system reaches beyond his turf.

His recent response to a DC for Democracy questionnaire echoes remarks he made during the last budget cycle. The Council, he observes, made “steep cuts in services for the most vulnerable…. My wife and I were not asked to make any sacrifice.”

Nor were my husband and I. But we’d pick up our share of the burden in a heartbeat. Because we know first-hand what a strong safety net can mean.

Back when that fire broke out, our safety net was homeowners insurance.

We called our agent as soon as the smoke cleared enough for us to get back in the house — and discover that we had no heat and a bedroom open to the great outdoors.

Within an hour, someone was on the phone telling us about reservations they’d made for us in a comfortable, centrally-located hotel. Our agent showed up with a check for incidental expenses.

The next day, someone else called us to talk about what sort of apartment we’d like and where. And someone else to tell us about the company’s arrangements for storing our belongings, sending our smoke-reeking clothes for specialized cleaning, even lining up a restoration expert for our beloved “art collection.”

Without this safety net, we’d have been literally homeless. In our car for the night, I guess. Then in separate shelters for men and women until we somehow located something more stable and secure — and figured out how we’d liquidate assets to pay for it.

My wish for the District is a safety net that’s as broad, responsive and individualized as ours. I understand this is pie in the sky.

But I hope that next Thanksgiving we’ll have a budget that puts a higher priority on basic human needs than on the investment portfolios of the wealthiest residents.

If you hope so too, Save Our Safety has an editable letter you can send to the Council. Or use the text to leave a message for Chairman Vincent Gray at 202-724-8032.

UPDATE: The Save Our Safety Net letter is now addressed only to Council Chairman Gray.

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More Light And A Lot More Heat On DC Summer Youth Employment Program

August 5, 2010

Monday’s hearing on the District’s troublesome Summer Youth Employment Program lasted more than eight hours. Many witnesses — most of them SYEP participants who, I gather, had been rounded up and possibly coached. Also invited government witnesses and some top-flight advocates for homeless and other poor D.C. residents.

Many pleas for the requested seven-day extension — a chance to earn more, learn more and have something to do besides hang out on the streets and get into trouble.

Cogent opposition from the Brookings Institution’s Martha Ross and the advocates, whose principal concern was the diversion of funds from homeless services, cash assistance and better job training for TANF participants and a swifter, more accurate case management system.

A blast from the DC auditor on the administration’s chronic practice of ignoring SYEP budget constraints. “Irresponsible … a threat to other vital District programs and the District’s fiscal stability.” Violations of the federal and District anti-deficiency laws, which, among other things, prohibit agencies from authorizing spending in excess of approved budgets.

An account of the run-up to this year’s raid on the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund from the Associate Chief Financial Officer. A raking over the coals for keeping the Council in the dark.

A strong defense of the SYEP from Joe Walsh, Director of Employment Services. The largest program in two decades. The largest in the country, in fact. Most participants from the three wards with the highest unemployment rates. About 30% of them from families who receive public assistance. The usual enumeration of benefits to participants. Diverse administrative improvements.

Considerable distress and frustration on the part of Councilmembers, who rightly felt jammed by the last-minute extension request and, more importantly, the administration’s utter disregard for the budget process.

Seems they thought the $22.7 million appropriated for the SYEP was what the administration was supposed to spend, not a minimum that could be freely augmented from other accounts without so much as a heads-up to the oversight committee.

Seems that Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, believed that the Department of Human Services would spend the TANF Emergency Contingency funds according to the allocations submitted during this year’s budget deliberations. Blindsided by the department’s transfer of $8.4 million to DOES.

But there really wasn’t much the committee could do — or the full Council either. Back in May, DOES had met with CFO staff about the costs of a program enrolling 21,000 participants for seven and a half weeks, rather than the authorized six. CFO staff told DOES it had funds for at most four weeks of wages. DOES then identified the TANF funds as the way to close the gap.

It assured CFO staff that the Emergency Contingency funds could be used because 80% of participants had addresses indicating they were eligible for TANF. Apparently no one in the CFO’s office questioned this dubious methodology.

So now SYEP participants are owed about two weeks of wages that can only be paid by tapping a source outside the approved budget. And since the Council found out about this only days ago, it hardly had time to go back through the budget and find another way to cover the overrun.

But it did what it could. It soundly defeated the proposed extension. This reportedly leaves $4.3 million in TANF funds that ought to go back to DHS.

It also leaves some big issues on the table. Where will DHS find the additional funds to provide shelter or other housing for the District’s many homeless families? Will it use any of the funds passed back to provide emergency relief to the families who’ve got no place to stay? What will happen with its TANF job training and other initiatives?

And what can the Council do to ensure that whoever directs the SYEP doesn’t again commit to a larger, longer program than the budget can cover?



At Least Would-Be Mayor Vincent Gray Is Honest

May 12, 2010

One thing I like about DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray. He’s honest when it comes to his mayoral campaign. Some months ago, I recall, he confessed he wasn’t sure he’d run because if he lost, he’d be out of a job.

Now another sterling instance of Gray’s candor. Feisty Save Our Safety Net volunteer Mike Wilson got in his face at a campaign event. Said he hoped the Chairman was with them on the proposed new top tax brackets. Gray said he shared some of their “sentiments.” But he wasn’t sure “the timing is the best.” Not because of the recession, but “well, the elections.”

Is he worried that a majority of D.C. residents would vote against him if he supported the tax increase? Only about 5% of them would have to pay more. A far larger percentage would be affected by the proposed cuts in safety net programs that the increase could avert.

Or is he afraid to get pounded with Mayor Fenty’s claim to have solved the budget gap without raising taxes? Gray has already said, in effect, that the mayor’s proposed budget is smoke and mirrors–putting himself forward as the leader who will, once again, produce a plan that “provides services in a fiscally responsible way.”

And he’s publicly stated his support for pre-K and child care programs for all D.C. infants and toddlers. This in contrast to the cuts the mayor has proposed.

So where will the revenues come from? Seems that Gray is still trying to figure that out. No harm there. But he’s had time enough to decide where he stands on a tax proposal that dates back to last year.

After all, he was quick to decide against one revenue-raising option. All it apparently took was a barrage of e-mails from riled-up health club members for him to announce that he wouldn’t be putting an expansion of the sales tax on the table.

I’ve admired Chairman Gray’s leadership, though I’ve not always agreed with the results. But now he seems preoccupied with how the political winds are blowing and keeping the people who fund campaigns happy–not to mention using the budget deliberations as an occasion for Fenty-bashing.

We need Councilmembers who will stand up for choices that serve the needs of our community as a whole. Will Gray measure up to the “character, integrity, leadership” he claims?


Protest Pits DC Sales Tax Expansion Against Safety Net

May 7, 2010

Just when I thought I’d heard everything comes an orchestrated groundswell of grassroots protest against the proposed expansion of the D.C. sales tax. Seems that relatively well-off fitness buffs are outraged that their gym memberships and yoga classes might be taxed.

The sales tax expansion is part of a package of revenue-raisers proposed by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and the more than 60 members of the Fair Budget Coalition. As they say, the sales tax hasn’t been updated to reflect the fact that people now purchase a wide variety of services, as well as the goods to which the tax applies.

If the DC Council doesn’t adopt some reasonable measures to increase tax revenues, the Fiscal Year 2011 budget will have to be balanced by devastating cuts in core programs and services.

We can get a glimpse of what this will mean in the mayor’s proposals for child care subsidies, adult education and training, affordable housing programs, community health services, legal aid for low-income residents and temporary cash assistance for those with severe disabilities.

Another glimpse, were one needed, in yesterday’s massive layoff of child welfare workers, including every one of those who provide much of the direct, day-to-day support for foster children and children at risk of removal from their families.

Yet at the very moment these workers were getting their pink slips, e-mails about the potential health club sales tax were flooding Councilmembers’ inboxes.

Whom will we hear from next? People who object to paying a few dollars more for private golf lessons, cleaning services for their hot tubs and professional advice on their closet space?


Rental Housing Grows Less Affordable For Low-Income Households

May 6, 2010

For 10 years now, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has issued annual reports on the affordability of rental housing in the U.S. It’s just released the latest. And the news is not good–either nationwide or here in the District of Columbia.

No surprise, given what we read in the papers and in other reports, like the recent update from the Center on Housing Policy. But NLIHC provides a unique perspective and alarming figures.

Though the rental unit vacancy rate is up, demand is also up, due to the continuing foreclosure and employment crises. And though, in most states, the minimum wage increased last year, there is still no state in which someone working full-time, year-round at a minimum wage can afford even a one-bedroom apartment at the applicable fair market rent. (The affordability measure here is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standard 30% of income.)

The news is even worse for extremely low-income people, i.e., those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median average for their area. Nationwide, there are an estimated 9.2 million renters in this category. But, according to the latest NLIHC survey figures, there are only 3.4 million available units they could afford. Seventy-one percent of extremely-low income renters pay more than half their total income for rent.

The figures are new, but the problem isn’t. As NLIHC notes, the affordable housing stock has shrunk–down 6.3% between 2001 and 2007. Meanwhile, high-cost rental stock has increased 94.3%. So the vacant units now available are mostly well beyond the affordability range for the growing number of low-income households.

As in the past, NLIHC has an online tool, plus some ranking tables to let us zero in on key data for every major metropolitan area and combined non-metropolitan areas, by state. So here’s the latest for the District.

  • A household would have to have an income of $59,760 a year to afford a FMR two-bedroom apartment. At full-time, year-round work, that’s $28.73 per hour.
  • This “housing wage” is higher than for any state except Hawaii.
  • A household would need 3.5 full-time minimum wage workers to afford the two-bedroom apartment.
  • A FMR one-bedroom apartment costs $1,116 per month more than someone who relies solely on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) can afford.

All these figures are higher than those NLIHC reported last year, when the District’s “housing wage” was $24.77 and two states, rather than one, outranked D.C.

This should be a wake-up call, if another were needed, to the DC Council, as it deliberates the proposed no-growth Fiscal Year 2011 affordable housing budget.


New, Quick Way To Support A Balanced Approach To DC Budget-Balancing

April 18, 2010

I’ve already beaten the drum for tax increases to help balance the District’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Now the Fair Budget Coalition has given us a quick and easy way to support them.

Though the mayor’s proposals include some revenue-raisers, they’re apparently not enough to avert cuts to a number of programs that serve the needs of the District’s low-income residents. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, child care, adult education and job training, mental health services and support to help grandparents care for their grandchildren will all take hits.

And the level funding proposed for some other programs–homeless services and locally-funded housing vouchers, for example–will deny many low-income residents the help they urgently need.

DCFPI has pulled together its previous recommendations for revenue-raisers and, unless I’m mistaken, added some new ones. All told, they would raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million. Together with Congressional approval of more reasonable rainy day fund rules, they would produce the wherewithal for a budget that minimizes immediate hardships and puts our community on track toward a fairer, more prosperous future.

FBC has an editable letter we can send to support this balanced approach. DC Council committees have begun work on their parts of the budget. So time is of the essence here.