A Time Limit for the DC TANF Time Limit?

October 31, 2016

Maybe — just maybe — the Mayor and the DC Council will decide to do the right thing about the families who will lose what remains of their thrice-cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

I’ve written about the plight of these families often — and more recently, about a proposal to relieve those who’d suffer specific hardships.

The Council could have folded it into the budget for this fiscal year, but kicked the can down the road again — largely because the administration said it had to study the issue.

It still hasn’t taken a position, but it now has recommendations that the Department of Human Services asked a working group to produce, plus advice on what it should do to make TANF better.

So a brief review of the issue, plus an update seem in order.

Families Facing a Crisis

Less than a year from now, roughly 6,560 families, including more than 10,000 children will lose their TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to reprieve at least some of them.

These families — and more as time goes on — will not only lose those benefits, but have no chance of ever getting them again because the current law sets a 60-month lifetime limit on TANF participation, with no exceptions, no matter what.

They’ll have little or no cash income, unless the parents manage to find steady work on their own. Not a likely prospect, given what we know about TANF “leavers” elsewhere.

We can reach a similar conclusion from the District auditor’s report on parents over the 60-month limit who’d recently received services designed to get them into the workforce.

How the Program Would Change

As I’ve said, the report includes many recommendations, but its main purpose is to guide action on the time limit. To that end, the working group’s first preference would do three things.

First, it would split the per-family cash benefit into a child grant and a parent grant. The child (or children) would get 80% and the parent (or parents) 20%.

This, the report says, would support children, give parents an incentive to participate in work activities and protect the most vulnerable. It would also shield children from sanctions, i.e., benefits cuts imposed when someone in authority decides that parents aren’t doing what their work activity plans require.

Second, it would eliminate the time limit for both child and parent grants. Families would remain eligible so long as they met already-established requirements.

Third, it would adjust the benefit reductions imposed as sanctions — these, recall, to the parent grant only. The initial sanction would remain the same — a 20% cut. The second would be 10% less than now — and the third 40% less, rather than the total cut-off in the current rule.

The less drastic cuts would indirectly help protect children because both grants will, of necessity, go to the parents. Infants, after all, don’t buy their own diapers, preschoolers their own shoes, etc.

And many of a family’s largest costs can’t be divvied up among members — housing, for example, and food, which poor and near-poor families generally have to buy, even if they receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Advantages to Recommended Approach

The overhaul has one obvious advantage. No families would be plunged into dire poverty, with the long-term harms we know that often inflicts on children, e.g., brain damage, chronic physical and mental health problems, neglect and even abuse from over-stressed parents.

Children would also have some protection from the harms stemming from such practical consequences as homelessness and malnutrition. Rolling all these together, they’d have a better chance of completing high school “college and career ready,” as our public schools intend.

The other advantage to the working group’s preferred option is that it’s far simpler to administer than the extensions the pending bill would establish. And it’s free from cracks some families could slip through, e.g., the need for victims of domestic violence to share their problem with virtual strangers.

Instead of various criteria, each with its own tracking system and potential time limit, there’d be only two clear reasons for ending a family’s participation in TANF.

Either it moved out of the District or the parent gained more income than the maximum for eligibility. Parents would still have every reason in the world to prepare for jobs, look for them and do their best to keep them because cash benefits would remain very low.

But there’d always be a safety net for those who initially succeeded, then fell on hard times again. What we now know about the parents over the current time limit or soon to reach it shows how important that’s likely to be. (More about this in a followup.)

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A Bold, Smart Bill to End Child Poverty in America

June 15, 2015

Four Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill to reduce — indeed, to end — child poverty in our country. Will it pass? Not in this Congress. But as a lobbyist friend used to remind me, it took eight years to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act.

So should we press for a law like the proposed Child Poverty Reduction Act? I think so, as do some of our leading children’s advocates. Three reasons, with an asterisk.

Far Too Many Poor Children. Well over 14.6 million children in the U.S. are officially poor, according to the latest report. That’s nearly one in five. We’ve got too many poor adults as well, but children are the poorest age group the Census Bureau counts.

This is still true when the Bureau uses its better poverty measure, which factors in major near-cash benefits like SNAP (food stamps), as well as refundable tax credits. These lower the child poverty rate, but still leave nearly 12.2 million children below the applicable poverty threshold.

Lifelong Consequences. Children born to poor parents are more likely than others to die while infants. Research tells us that those who survive, as most do, can soon suffer damages to their brain and other systems caused by toxic levels of stress.

They’re at high risk for physical and mental health problems due to a wide range of poverty-related factors — inadequate nutrition, unstable (or no) housing, parental abuse and (more often) neglect, neighborhood violence and exposure to toxins, e.g., mold, lead paint, air pollution from nearby power plants, dumps and/or highways.

Needless to say (I hope), children suffering from such problems don’t arrive at school ready to learn — or in some cases, behave themselves, as classroom decorum dictates.

They’re more likely to miss school days because they’re ill, can’t get to school or have to stay home to care for a younger child — or because they’re suspended for misbehaving, especially likely if they’re black, Hispanic or Native American.

They may choose to miss school days because they don’t want to sit in classrooms where they can’t understand the lessons and to suffer humiliation because of that and/or because their peers gang up on them.

Ultimately, far too many drop up — mostly, though perhaps not always because they’re failing academically. Or they graduate, even though they can barely read or do basic math. Barring further education, most will face a lifetime of low-wage employment — if they’re lucky. Some, as we know, will find more gainful employment in drug dealing and the like.

A somewhat dated but still indicative study estimated that child poverty costs our country $500 billion a year in lost earnings, higher crime-related costs and increased health expenditures.

So if we need a cost-benefit rationale, which I’d like to think we don’t, then making child poverty rare and brief would seem a sensible priority.

Not a National Priority. We’ve already got programs to break the poverty cycle — too many to even simply list here. We’ve got research indicating other promising initiatives, e.g., the housing pilot evaluation I blogged on recently. We’ve got at least one full-blown agenda for dramatically reducing child poverty.

But, as First Focus President Bruce Lesley observes, tackling child poverty isn’t a national priority to the extent that top-level policymakers feel they must actually do something about it — or that we, the public, demand they do.

The Child Poverty Reduction Act aims to change this by importing elements of an approach that worked in the UK. Adopted there in 2000, it drove policy changes and investments that cut the child poverty rate, as we measure it,* in half by 2008.

The proposed approach has three major prongs. Like the UK’s, it sets goals — half as many children living in poverty and none in deep poverty in 10 years and no children in poverty at all 10 years thereafter.

The proposal doesn’t include new and/or reformed policies and programs to achieve these goals. Here too, it’s like the initial UK law. It does, however, differ somewhat in how the agenda would develop.

The elements of the UK’s child poverty initiative emerged over time, though the goal-setting law required both the overarching government and the nation-level governments the UK comprises to issue strategies.

The CPRA would instead set the stage for policymaking by mandating a national plan for achieving the reduction-elimination goals, plus recommendations for achieving related goals, e.g. understanding the root causes of child poverty, eliminating race, ethnicity and other disparities.

A working group of officials in at least six federal agencies would be responsible for developing the plan and other recommendations. It would first, however, have to commission workshops and research papers from the independent National Academy of Sciences.

So we’d have a blueprint of sorts, based on research already conducted — and perhaps new studies — to launch the actual war on child poverty.

Then, much as in the UK, the working group would monitor relevant programs and services and annually publish results. Reports would include states’ child poverty reduction efforts and recommendations for further legislation.

Political Will. As Lesley says, all major parties in the UK have embraced the child poverty goals there. And their leaders apparently feel they’re accountable to the public for the impacts of their policies and other decisions.

They face a major test because recent projections suggest the child poverty rate will rise, as a report for First Focus notes. The policy largely responsible for bringing the rate down would cost too much to replicate, it says, “even if the political appetite were there.”

The lesson here isn’t one we have to learn from the UK. We’ve had goals before. Then-candidate Obama was going to end child hunger by this year, for example.

We’ve had recommendations from independent research agencies, including the recently overridden exclusion of white potatoes from foods mothers could use their WIC benefits to buy. We’ve had reams of plans to achieve worthy goals — more than 243 to end homelessness, for example.

Don’t mean to sound cynical. My point is simply that even if Congress passed the CPRA, we’d still be merely looking at the annual Census reports and shaking our heads unless we create — and sustain – enough political will to convince our elected officials that they have to show progress toward the goals.

* Countries in the European Union ordinarily use a poverty measure based on their median income. Our official measure uses incomes adjusted only for inflation to divide the poor from the not-poor year after year. The UK now uses both types of measures for child poverty.