When Is a Hard-Up Family a Family?

December 14, 2015

Not long before Jesse died, we were chatting, as we often did, about issues I was working on — in this case, the District of Columbia’s homeless shelters.

I had to explain to him that if we became homeless and had no place to stay, we would have to live on the streets or spend our nights in separate sex-segregated shelters, then meet up some place or other when they turned us out at daybreak.

He was dumbfounded. It apparently had never occurred to him that we weren’t a family, according to the District’s homeless services policies.

I recalled the moment as I read reports of interviews with the homeless people the District is sweeping out of the campsites they’ve set up. The Department of Human Services, to its credit, has placed some of them in housing units. It wants most of them, however, to go into the shelters — at least, for awhile.

A fair number, it seems, don’t want to go — understandably, given conditions in what are called shelters for singles. Repeated references to bedbugs. Fears of having their belonging stolen. Fights. Bad food.

But it’s not only such shelter conditions. “They split you and your husband up,” said one woman interviewed. “We prefer to have privacy.”

None in the shelter for either — let alone privacy for the two together so they could comfort each other, talk about next steps and, well, do what couples do only when alone in a room with a door.

The problem, you see, is that they don’t have children in their care, just as Jesse and I wouldn’t have if we’d had to throw ourselves on the mercies of DHS.

This isn’t a singular safety net policy. We see it, for example, in states’ Medicaid policies. Twenty-two exclude all childless adults who don’t have disabilities, except pregnant women. All cover parents, though some only those far below the poverty line.

These are state choices, as the variations indicate. But the federal government itself doesn’t view childless couples as families — or for that matter, couples whose children are grown ups.

The only nationwide source of cash income for poor people who aren’t severely disabled is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But couples who have no children living with them don’t qualify.

So-called general assistance programs could fill this gap in the safety net. But the federal government provides no funds for them. So states that had GA programs have exercised their unlimited flexibility to get rid of them or scale them back in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Only 11 provide cash benefits to childless adults who aren’t demonstrably unemployable — because they’re elderly, for example, or disabled, but haven’t yet (and perhaps can’t) surmount the hurdles to gaining Supplemental Security Income.

SNAP (the food stamp program) does provide cash-equivalent aid for childless couples. But as I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can generally get benefits for only three months in any three-year period unless they’re working or participating in a job training program at least half-time.

This restriction applies to childless couples if both spouses or partners have no disabilities unless they’re caring for someone in the household who’s disabled or have a child on the way. And the chances that both can get into — and remain in — certified job training programs are, in many states, virtually nil.

The time limit originated in the same law that brought us TANF — the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

I mention this because it perversely disadvantages couples who’ve chosen not to have children unless and until they can afford to provide for their basic needs, plus the time, attention and opportunities that support healthy, well-rounded development. Seems like personal responsibility to me.

The federal Earned Income Tax Credit also disadvantages childless couples, even when lawfully wed. And it altogether denies the credit — and thus the potential refund — to young childless workers.

Far be it from me to say our safety net programs shouldn’t put a high priority on the well-being of the next generation. But we don’t have to choose between children and working-age adults who don’t have any.

And we surely don’t have to treat homeless couples who don’t have children with them as if they weren’t families.

 


DC Mayor’s Budget Would Punish TANF Families for Program’s Failures

April 29, 2012

How would you like to try living on $275 a month — and in the District of Columbia no less? Inconceivable for a single person. What then for a single mother with two kids?

Under Mayor Gray’s proposed budget, more than 6,100 families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will lose a fifth of their meager cash benefits come October — this on top of the same sized-cut imposed last April.

The figure I led off with is what a family of three would be left with. Additional benefits cuts would follow until the family got nothing at all.

More than 11,000 children under thirteen would be plunged into even deeper poverty. Some of them, as the Children’s Law Center warns, would be put into foster care simply because their parents couldn’t afford adequate housing.

The families who’ll suffer are those who’ve spent 60 months or more in the program — not necessarily consecutive.

In many cases, the affected parents haven’t gotten the services they need to overcome severe work barriers, e.g., mental and physical health problems, domestic violence trauma, minimal or no marketable job skills.

Some were expected to engage in what passed for work preparation activities — sessions on workplace behavior, writing a resume, interviewing, etc.

Then, as one participant said, “[t]hey have you on the computer all day,” searching the online listings and pressured to take the first job offered.

Many have cycled back into the program because they didn’t have the skills for the jobs they’d found — or hadn’t gotten the help they needed to overcome other barriers. Others, I suppose, returned when they lost their jobs due to the recession.

Not all the parents whose benefits will be cut were required to engage in work activities for their whole term in the program. Some were excused for awhile because their barriers made work activities wholly unrealistic. But the time off is being counted toward their 60-month maximum anyway.

What’s happening here is that part of the Department of Human Services’ TANF redesign is barreling ahead — the part that gives parents a stronger incentive to engage in required work preparation and work search activities.

Nothing like facing a penniless future to get one moving — unless, of course, one’s too ill, disabled or occupied with other responsibilities, e.g., caring for a severely disabled child, to move on the work front, even knowing the hardships awaiting.

The administration could exempt up to 20% of such “hardship cases” from the 60-month limit and still use federal funds for a share of their cash benefits. But it’s chosen not to.

The other part of the TANF reform — in-depth individual assessments to identify their individual strengths and needs — is lagging behind. Thus also appropriate agreements on what they should do to fulfill their responsibilities for striving toward self-sufficiency.

As of late February, DHS had completed only 12% of the assessments needed for families at immediate risk of cash benefit loss.

At the reported rate of 150 assessments a week, it won’t get through them all until months after the next 20% cut kicks in.

It might if the rate applied only to parents subject to the phase-out rather than to all parents who show up when they’re told to. Some at immediate risk haven’t heard, don’t understand or perhaps figure it’s futile because they’re going to lose their benefit anyway.

Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown have introduced a bill that would temporarily stave off the benefits cuts and mandate reasonable time-limit exemptions, such as many states provide.

Advocates have suggested ways the bill could be strengthened, including a longer reprieve period. But it’s a whole lot better than what’s coming down the pike.

Why didn’t Mayor Gray fold a version into his proposed budget? Surely he knows that TANF families will lose benefits because the program failed them.

For the same reason he put the benefits phase-out into last year’s proposed budget. Savings to help close the budget gap. This year he expects to save more than $5.6 million.

Well, the DC Council could do what the Mayor wouldn’t. The Human Services Committee took a step in this direction last week with a vote (4-1) in favor of the Graham-Brown bill

Now comes the need to find funds to substitute for the Mayor’s proposed savings — and to get at least three more Councilmembers on board.

Maybe we should launch a TANF Challenge along the lines of the popular Food Stamp Challenges.

Who knows what might happen if our elected representatives had to try living on $275 for a month?


TANF Safety Net Keeps Fraying

December 19, 2011

Safety nets are supposed to catch people when they fall so they don’t crash to the ground. So too with what we call safety net programs. We’ve created them so that people don’t land in desperate poverty.

We’d thus expect safety net programs to catch more people when the economy tanks, as it did in late 2007. We’d expect them to provide enough aid to serve their basic purpose, i.e., ensuring that needy people have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, essential medical care, etc.

By this modest measure, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has egregiously failed — no surprise, given past performance.

A new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms this with two updated perspectives on the TANF safety net — what portion of poor families with children is it catching and how much is it helping those caught to meet their basic needs.

TANF Enrollment

TANF was created in 1996 to replace AID to Families with Dependent Children —  a program under which the federal government provided states with matching funds based on what benefits were costing and need.

“Welfare reform” converted this scheme to a fixed-sum block grant, plus a Contingency Fund states could draw on during hard economic times — until the Fund ran dry.

At the time, AFDC was providing cash assistance to 68% of poor families with children. Participation rates have been steadily falling — and not because fewer families were poor enough to need aid.

TANF did expand slightly — by 13% — after the recession set in. But in 2009, only 27% of families in poverty received any cash assistance from the program.

Cash Benefits

TANF cash benefits started out low — an average of about $395.50 a month for a family of three.

As of 2008, 28 states and the District of Columbia had increased the nominal value of the benefits they provided, but fewer than half enacted increases big enough to even keep pace with inflation.

Since then, inflation has continued to make dollars worth less. But most states have frozen benefit levels. Six states and the District have actually cut them.*

A perfect storm of reasons for this — mostly attributable to federal policies. Most important perhaps are the year-after-year failure to increase funding for the block grant and rules that allow states to use TANF funds for more politically-popular programs.

Add to these two recent decision by our penny-pinching Congress.

The first was to let the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund die, thus denying states more of the extra funding the Recovery Act had provided to help them cope with recession-related pressures.

The second, more recent denied 17 mostly poor states supplemental funds they’d been receiving since TANF was created and, at the same time, cut back what had already been approved for the regular Contingency Fund.

I don’t want to let states — or the District — off the hook here. They’ve been choosing to economize on TANF cash benefits for a long time. Even in tough economic years like these, budgets are choices.

Nevertheless, the federal partner has been shirking its share of responsibility for maintaining the TANF safety net — and allowing states to shirk theirs as well.

End result is that:

  • TANF cash benefits are worth less now than in 1996 in all but two states.
  • They’ve declined by at least 20% in 34 states and the District.
  • No state provides benefits that lift a family of three out of extreme poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.
  • In 29 states and the District, benefits for the family are below 30% of the FPL.
  • They’re below 20% in 14 states, nine of which have lost their supplemental grants.

This unfortunately may not be the worst of the bad news.

As CBPP earlier reported, a number of states have already projected budget shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2013.

They could face gaps they hadn’t expected due to the automatic spending cuts the debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal will trigger — or cuts Congress may pass to avert them.

* Unlike most of the state cuts, the District’s cut applies to families who’ve participated in TANF for a total of more than five years. And it’s progressive — first 20% less, then 25% less till there’s nothing left. The DC Council deferred the second round of cuts, but they’re scheduled to resume in 2013.


DC Council Finds Funds For TANF, But Poor Families Will Still Be Homeless

June 2, 2011

So DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown has managed to find $4.9 million for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

This will be used to temporarily halt the phase-out of cash benefits for families who’ve been in the program for more than five years. And a good thing too.

As a number of fellow bloggers have commented, it’s grossly unfair to penalize families for the program’s failures to provide suitable job training and other needed services.

Outrageously unfair to punish children because their parents haven’t been able to find sustained living wage work in our high-skill, recession-battered economy.

Also, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has argued, counterproductive because children who live in poverty are less likely to learn what our public schools aim to teach them. Push more of them into even deeper poverty and you set the stage for another generation of poor parents raising poor children.

On the other hand, the TANF program needs more than protection of current cash benefits. It needs enough funding to boost them.

They’ve remained flat for three years, which means they’ve lost value due to inflation. At this point, a family of three can get, at most, enough to put it somewhat below 28% of the very low federal poverty line.

Here’s one indicator of the results. According to the recently-released final figures from the District’s 2011 homeless count, 83% of literally homeless adults in families had some regular income. And the most common primary source was none other than TANF.

The Council, to its credit, put $17 million more into homeless services, thus making up for most of the shortfall. So at least those TANF families should be able to count on shelter this winter.

It also rejected, in principle, Mayor Gray’s plans to gut affordable housing programs.

As DCFPI reports, the Council’s version of the Budget Support Act, i.e., the legislation needed to implement the budget, allocates a portion of the additional revenues it hopes the Chief Financial Officer will project to restoring the $18 million shifted out of the Housing Production Trust Fund.

An additional $1.6 million of the hoped-for revenues would be used to preserve all affordable units subsidized with Local Rent Supplement Program funds for the homeless individuals and families sponsors intended to house.

The mayor’s proposed budget co-opted 175 of them to house people in the permanent supportive housing program. If all goes well, they’ll be housed without foreclosing opportunities for others.

But the first $22 million of new-found revenues will go to moving remaining expenses parked in the capital budget into the operating budget, where they belong.

Half of the remainder will be used to build up funds reserved for future contingencies. And the first $10.8 million of the rest will fund additional police force positions.

If my back-of-the-envelope calculations are right, the upcoming CFO projection will have to show more than $100 million more in expected revenues for both homeless services and affordable housing to be brought up to current funding levels.

Whatever the projection, the Council can still change its mind.

Council Chairman Brown and some of his colleagues reportedly still want to use some $13 million of the found funds to replace the just-passed tax on interest earned from out-of-state bonds.

This now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach to balancing the budget was in Brown’s version of the BSA. A bare majority of Councilmembers passed an amendment to block it.

But neither the amendment nor any other part of the BSA will be final until the Council votes again on June 14.

The Save Our Safety Net coalition suggests we stiffen the backbones of Councilmembers who voted for the bond tax amendment and try to move others into their camp.

A one-vote margin is never comfortable, especially when it includes at least one Councilmember who, let’s just say, has proved remarkably unpredictable.