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?