The DC Fiscal Policy Institute and So Others Might Eat have just issued a pioneering report on the District’s TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program. It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about how this crucial safety net program works–and doesn’t.
I say the report is pioneering for a couple of reasons. One is that it goes beyond the usual bounds of advocacy. Yes, it calls for more funding. But it also delves into administrative issues–ways the program could be improved through new procedures, changes in vendor contracts and the like. In the process, it also provides a terrific education on a very complex program.
The report also pioneers in methodology. The research involved focus groups with local TANF recipients and interviews with service providers who work with them. The effort here was not just to collect illustrative stories or quotes but to learn from those who know the program best.
Their perspectives confirm some things we already knew, e.g., that TANF benefits are woefully inadequate. They also shed new light on some serious systemic problems–reasons the program doesn’t, as it’s supposed to do, enable needy families to become self-sufficient.
A sample of key findings:
- Five times as many DC TANF recipients receive only basic job readiness services as are placed in other available job training and education programs.
- Only small fractions of recipients who face barriers to work, e.g., domestic violence, mental and physical health issues, receive the supportive services they need.
- Recipients who find jobs (and not nearly all do) earn an average of $9.00 per hour–a full-time annual wage of just $18,720.
- Only 45% of them are still employed after six months.
As the report shows, the Income Maintenance Administration, which administers the District’s TANF program, could do a lot to improve outcomes. The City Council could conduct more probing oversight. But the root of some of the problems is in the federal legislation.
TANF will be up for reauthorization in Fiscal Year 2010. The DCFPI/SOME report and other experience-based studies can provide useful guidelines for a much-needed overhaul.