We Need Photo IDs, But Not Easy for Poor and Near-Poor in DC to Get

August 31, 2015

Most of us, I suppose, have a photo ID and don’t think much about what we’d do without it. If we do, it’s probably because 17 states, mostly red, have made photo IDs a passport to the voting booth, not coincidentally disenfranchising disproportionate numbers of blacks, Hispanics and others who tend to vote for Democrats.

Nothing of that sort in the District of Columbia, which would probably be the bluest state if granted statehood. But lack of a photo ID here, as well as elsewhere is a problem — and getting one can be a big problem for people with little or no income.

Why Poor and Near-Poor Residents Need Photo IDs

Doubtful that very low-income residents will be trying to board planes — another occasion when the rest of us may become fleetingly conscious of the need for a photo ID. But they’ll face barriers to opportunities that can improve their situation if they don’t have one.

First off, federal rules require employers to verify the identity of people they hire. All but two of the acceptable documents are photo IDs. The only exception for adults will do nothing for the vast majority of prospective workers.

Second, lack of a photo IDs limits access to cash and in-kind assistance. Some local nonprofit sources of the latter, including many food pantries and some free-clothing providers will distribute only to residents with photo IDs.

The Department of Human Services agency that administers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, SNAP (the food stamp program) and several smaller safety net programs advises applicants to bring photo IDs with them to the interview that’s part of the application process.

The IDs are not an absolute requirement, according to the department’s policy manual. We can nevertheless assume, I think, that the more accessible instruction — and thus prospects of hassle, if not denial — can deter residents from seeking help they need.

They may also figure it’s futile to try because they believe they must have a photo ID. That’s what the Washington Examiner reported — and what the District itself says homeless families must bring to the center that’s their gateway to services.*

A third reason is that lack of a photo ID can limit low-income residents’ opportunities to advocate for policies, including budgets that will alleviate their hardships — among them, the costs, frustrations and complexities of getting a photo ID.

The problem here is that only people with photo IDs can get into federal and District office buildings, including the building where the DC Council holds hearings and Councilmembers have their offices.

Why Poor and Near-Poor Residents May Face Problems

Getting a photo ID is a one-time nuisance for all District residents. but it’s singularly challenging for those who’ve got no money to spare, haven’t recently worked, except perhaps on a day-to-day or off-the-books basis, and/or don’t own or rent a home of their own.

This is partly because the District charges most residents $20 for an ID card and more than twice as much for a driver’s license, which serves the same identification purposes.

The larger problem is that the District requires three different types of documents for a photo ID — each with its own potential challenges.

Proof of Identity. Photo ID applicants must prove they’re U.S. citizens or legally-authorized immigrants. Many options, but for citizens, the most common are probably a birth certificate or currently-valid passport — unless they’ve already got a photo ID from another jurisdiction.

Not many poor folks have the passport, of course. They may not have a birth certificate handy either. The District will issue a copy to people born here, for a $23 charge. But they’ll need a photo ID or three other documents, none of which everyone is sure to have.

They’ll need a photo ID for sure if they want to request the birth certificate in person because the Vital Records Division is in one of those buildings that requires the ID for entrance.

States charge varying amounts for copies of birth certificates. Mine would cost $20 if I got a paper copy and could wait 6-8 weeks. To speed things up, I could order online — for nearly $88, even more if I need it ASAP.

Social Security Number. The District also requires applicants to present a document proving they have a Social Security number. Most people who work for pay — or did in the prior year — shouldn’t have a problem with this.

They’ll presumably have a pay stub or the end-of-year form their employer filed with the Internal Revenue Service, assuming they are or were actually on a payroll. Not much hope for many day laborers or people who do low-wage, occasional work for individuals and families.

For them, the only official option is a Social Security card. Lots of people who once had one don’t any more, for any one of a number of reasons, including theft of the wallet it was tucked in or just simple loss.

Either may be particularly likely for homeless individuals who spend their nights in shelters or on the streets and have to lug all their worldly belongings around during the day.

The solution then is getting a replacement Social Security card. But for that, one has to prove identity, with that photo ID, which won’t be issued without the card, or an ID of another specified sort, e.g., issued by an employer, school or government agency.

And if the Social Security Administration hasn’t issued the applicant a card before, it requires a birth certificate or passport. This is also true for a replacement if the applicant became a U.S. citizen after the original card was issued. Bit of a Catch 22 here, as you can see.

Proofs of Residency. Applicants must also produce two documents proving they live in the District, e.g., a recent utility bill, current lease or home insurance policy with their name on it, official mail from a federal or District government agency, with the envelope it came in.

Even homeowners and renters might have difficulty coming up with such documents. What if, for example, the lease and utility accounts are in a spouse’s name — or if they’re paying for a room or two on an informal month-to-month basis? And who, pray tell, saves the envelopes agency mail comes in?

The challenges are obviously greater for homeless people, including those who live doubled-up with friends or relatives, especially if they move frequently from one home to another. Though the District does have some workarounds, they’re a complex business — and known only to those in the know.

Why Such Challenges

The District didn’t just gin up all these documentation requirements. After 9/11, the Bush administration and Congress decided we’d all be a lot safer if terrorists couldn’t so easily board planes (or enter federal facilities and nuclear plants) with fraudulent IDs.

So the District had to impose requirements that would meet federal standards. Whether it could comply using a simpler, more flexible set is beyond my ken.

Whether it could do more to help homeless and other very low-income residents deal with the challenges the current set poses is a separate question. Look for a followup post on this.

* The statement about intake at the Family Resources Center appears, on its face, inconsistent with DHS policy. I have tried, without success, to fact-check it with staff directly responsible for center operations.

 

 

 


Too Soon to Lock in DC Tax Cuts

June 25, 2015

Life is full of surprises, they say. So is the District of Columbia’s budget. I’m referring here to the Budget Support Act, the package of legislation that’s paired with the spending bill.

Turns out that the BSA the DC Council will soon take its second required vote on could trigger tax cuts before either the Mayor or the Council knows how much the District will need to spend just to keep services flowing — let alone how much it should spend.

Whoever knew? Doubtful all Councilmembers did, since Chairman Mendelson distributed the final BSA shortly before the first vote. Other interested parties surely didn’t because it wasn’t published.

And one would have needed time to figure out what the Chairman had done because his bill doesn’t spell out how it would change trigger provisions enacted as part of last year’s BSA.

Well, we know now — or could, thanks to a heads-up from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a DC for Democracy post that adds some angles.

The basic issue here — though not the only one — is when tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission should go into effect. Both the original BSA provision and the new version require a revenue projection higher than an earlier one.

Tax cuts wouldn’t all kick in at once, since that would immediately throw the budget out of balance. Last year’s BSA ranked them in priority order. The ranking would stay the same. But that’s as far as the parallels go.

Set aside for a moment the egregious lack of transparency. What’s wrong with the latest plan for triggering tax cuts based on rosier revenue projections? Three big things.

Tax Cuts Take Priority Over Spending Needs

The new plan would dedicated all of the projected revenue increase to tax cuts, rather than the excess over a threshold set by the current BSA.

And it would do that before the Chief Financial Officer had estimated the costs of sustaining existing programs in the upcoming fiscal year. These tend to rise for various reasons, as DCFPI notes.

Beyond that, we’re not spending as much as we should in a number of areas — affordable housing and homeless services, to name just two. This year’s budget makes some progress on both. But further progress will stall if the Mayor and Council can’t allocate the revenues needed.

Without them, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the single largest source of financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — could have less next fiscal year, since half of the $100 million it has now reflects a one-time appropriation.

The next steps envisioned in the latest strategic plan to end homelessness in the District also hinge on further investments. For example, the plan envisions year-over-year increases in permanent supportive housing for families, plus some rapid re-housing vouchers extended past the usual one-year limit.

It also calls for some indefinite-term vouchers earmarked for families and single adults who can’t afford housing when they don’t need intensive supportive services any more or come to the end of their rapid re-housing extensions.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll add that we’re likely to have homeless families until the Mayor and Council significantly increase Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which now, at best, leave a family of three at about 26% of the federal poverty line.

More generally, setting automatic triggers for a series of tax cuts denies both the Mayor and Council a chance to weigh priorities during budget seasons. Those tax cuts, recall, will mean relatively less in revenues not only next year, but every year — unless they’re repealed.

A whole lot harder politically to repeal a tax cut than to defer it until it won’t preempt spending that will do more good for more people than reducing tax obligations for some.

Cuts in the Offing Tilt Toward Well-Off Taxpayers

The Tax Revision Commission made nearly a dozen recommendations for cuts — a mixed bag if you believe that individuals and businesses should contribute to the general welfare according to how well they’re faring.

The Council adopted a couple that ease tax burdens for low and moderate-income residents. But those ranked highest in the BSA now don’t reflect a consistent preference for a progressive tax structure — far from it.

The second listed, for example, would reduce the tax rate on income between $350,000 and $1 million. Next on the list — and again in fifth place — are cuts in the franchise taxes that businesses pay.

The threshold for any tax on estates would increase to $2 million before filers would get larger standard deductions — the option virtually all low-income taxpayers choose because they’d pay more by itemizing.

Bigger Revenue Losses Than Recommended

The Tax Revision Commission recommended revenue increases to offset the losses resulting from its recommended cuts. The Council took a pass on two. The new BSA would do the same, forgoing $67 million, DCFPI reports.

So there’d be a straitjack on revenue growth — possibly indeed future shortfalls. The District has had these before — the latest only just remedied by savings found.

What the shortfalls tell us is that revenue projections are inherently iffy — the more so as they estimate collections beyond the upcoming quarter of a fiscal year. That’s just how forecasts are. Ditto projections of spending needs.

Who, for example, can foresee a prodigious snowstorm, requiring millions more to clear the roads than budgeted? Who, at this point, can predict how much crucial programs will lose due to federal spending cuts?

So it seems unnecessarily risky to plow ahead with tax cuts before next year’s budget is even on the drawing board. And if past is prologue, programs that help low-income residents are what the BSA would actually put at risk.

UPDATE: I’ve learned, from reliable sources, that the excess revenue threshold in the current BSA applied only to the forecast used as the basis for next fiscal year’s budget. Under the current law, tax cuts would kick in with any higher revenue forecast, but not until next February. The Mayor could, if she chose, ask the Council to approve using the extra for unmet needs instead.

So what I wrote about the current BSA is misleading, but my basic point that the new BSA would trigger cuts prematurely stands.

 

 


Rent’s Still Too Damn High for Lower-Income DC Residents

May 28, 2015

About 41,000 District of Columbia households are currently on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list. Nearly half said they were homeless when they signed up for housing assistance.

Very disheartening, since there’s no way that all those households will get vouchers to cover what they can’t afford for rent or a chance to live in public housing. It’s even more disheartening when we consider how many additional households would be on the list if it weren’t still closed to new applicants.

The District’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year will fund more vouchers, as well as more construction and/or preservation of housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Yet these investments will just make a dent in one of the District’s acute and growing problems — the shrinking supply of rental housing that’s affordable for those residents and for some with too much income to get on the DCHA waiting list, even if it were open.

The latest annual report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition gives us diverse perspectives on how “out of reach” rental housing is for low-income District residents, as well as some we wouldn’t ordinarily consider low-income.

Our point of reference here is the monthly cost of an available, modestly-priced two-bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities — technically, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent. Here in the District, the FMR for the apartment is $1,458.

To afford it, based on the usual 30% of income standard, a worker would have to earn at least $28.04 an hour — $58,320 for the year.

Renters in the District, however, earn, on average, an estimated $26.08 an hour. So the apartment is roughly $100 a month more than what they can afford. Doesn’t seem so bad until we consider that we’ve got some very high earners who bump up the average because they prefer, at least for the time being, to rent.

Income shortfalls are much larger as we drill down. For example, an extremely low-income household could afford to pay only $819 for rent, plus those utilities. Or so the NLIHC report tells us.

We need to recall that many households have incomes far below what NLIHC uses for its affordability figure — the maximum for the ELI category, i.e., 30% of the median for the area. That’s true everywhere, of course.

What’s not is the basis for the figure. As I’ve said before, the median income that HUD — and hence NLIHC — use for the District is inflated because the area includes some very well-off suburbs. So the apartment is almost surely further out of reach for even the highest-income ELIs.

One would need to do some fancy number-crunching to say how much further. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which did something of the sort two years ago, found that the District’s own median income was 23% lower than the area median.

No such caveats needed as we move down the income scale. We learn, for example, that a District resident with a full-time minimum wage job could afford to pay $494 a month for rent — roughly a third of the FMR for the two-bedroom apartment.

In other words, a household would have to have three full-time minimum wage workers to afford it. Looked at another way, as NLIHC always does, a minimum wage worker would have to work 118 hours.

Residents with severe disabilities who rely on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits are, as always, in the worst shape of the groups NLIHC reports on. Those who receive the maximum benefit could afford no more than $220 a month for rent.

Moving beyond the report itself, I’ll note that the maximum monthly benefit a parent with two children can receive from the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program falls short of the FMR for the apartment by more than $1,000.

Don’t need to add, I suppose, that the apartment is even more absurdly out of reach for the 6,300 or so families who’ve had their benefits cut repeatedly and will have to manage somehow on what remains during the one-year cut-off delay the DC Council just approved.

As the NLIHC report indicates, measly public benefits alone don’t account for the gaps between what low-income renters could afford and what they’d have to pay — or in many cases, are paying by scrimping on other needs, juggling bills and/or resorting to high-interest loans.

Nor does the fact that inexpensive apartments are “going, going, gone” from the local market, as DCFPI recently reported. As it also documented, incomes for renters in the bottom two-fifths of the income scale have actually lost purchasing power since 2002 — or at least had, as of 2013.

These all enter into the mix, however. We’ve got a shortage of low-cost rental housing, a commensurate shortage of vouchers that would make moderate-cost units affordable, public benefits that don’t cover basic living costs, a minimum wage that’s still far less than a genuine living wage and too many residents without the education, training and/or job opportunities they’d have if our laws and programs achieved what policymakers intended.

A web of problems underlying the seemingly straightforward “out of reach” update, but all within reach of solutions.

 

 


DC Homeless Count Shows Some Progress, Still Big Unmet Needs

May 13, 2015

On a single night late last January, nearly 7,300 people were counted as homeless in the District of Columbia, according to the Metropolitan Council of Government’s just-released report. Nearly half of them were adults and children together as families.

Both these figures are moderately lower than those reported for 2014. But over the longer haul, we see an upward trend in the homeless total, driven entirely by the sharp spike in family homelessness.

Nearly Twice as Many Homeless Families as in 2008

The count identified 1,131 homeless families, i.e. those in shelters or transitional housing. None reported on the streets, in bus stations or other places “not meant for human habitation.” And as I say virtually every time I report count figures, they don’t include nearly all families (or individuals) without a home of their own.

The latest family total is 100 fewer than in January 2014. But it’s nearly double the number counted in 2008, when the recession had just set in. Looked at another way, family homelessness has increased by well over 92%, despite the 2014 dip down.

High Percent of Homeless Families With Very Young Parents

The MCOG report includes a first-time-ever breakout of “transition age youth,” i.e., 18-24 year olds. For this we can thank the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets the data collection rules.

Here in the District, the count identified 1,103 TAY — all but 193 of them in families, i.e., as parents who had at least one child with them, but no parent or guardian of their own in the group. This means that nearly 64% of all adults in families counted were in their late teens or early twenties.

Now, this doesn’t mean that such a large percent of all homeless young adults in the District were parents who had babies and/or toddlers to tend and, insofar as they could, protect.

Far more single, i.e., lone, TAY than counted had probably found friends or relatives to give them a temporary alternative to the streets or the nasty singles shelters. It’s obviously one thing to let a young person sleep on your couch. Quite another to bring a mom and her newborn or understandably fretful two-year-old into your home.

It’s also likely that many single TAY who had no shelter of any sort didn’t get counted because unaccompanied youth generally don’t spend their nights where they’re reasonably easy to find — and often won’t admit they’re homeless when found.

The high percent of youth-headed homeless families is nonetheless striking. The TAY count isn’t the only indicator. MCOG, relying on facts and figures from last year’s count, says the median age for homeless D.C. adults in families is 25.

Fewer Homeless Singles, But More Unsheltered

The latest count found 3,821 homeless single adults, i.e., those who didn’t have children with them and thus didn’t qualify as family members, though some undoubtedly had spouses or partners sharing their plight.

The new figure is a tad lower than last year’s, which was somewhat higher than the figure for 2013. We don’t see a clear long-term trend. The latest figure, however, represents a decrease of about 9.2%, as compared to 2008.

Though the vast majority of homeless singles were in shelters or transitional housing, 544 were exposed to the elements or spending their nights in cars, vacant buildings, stairwells and the like. The unsheltered figure is nearly 150 higher than last year’s — and even a bit higher than in 2008.

With such (happily) small numbers, it’s hard to know whether we’re seeing a real uptick or merely the results of a more effective count. The District’s chapter in the MCOG report suggests the latter.

Fewer Chronically Homeless Residents

We do see what seems a genuine downward trend in the number of homeless singles identified as chronically homeless, i.e., those who’d been homeless for quite a long time or recurrently and had at least one disabling condition.

The January count found 1,593 of these singles — only 16 fewer than in 2014. But it’s the fifth year the number dropped, making for a 27% decrease since 2008.

The count also found fewer chronically homeless families, i.e. those in which at least one adult met the HUD definition I’ve linked to above. The latest figure — 66 — represents a marked drop from 2014, but that was a marked increase over 2013.

MCOG didn’t start reporting chronically homeless families as a separate group until 2011, presumably because HUD didn’t require grantees to do so. Looking back as far as we can then, we see a decrease of roughly 51%.

More Residents Not Homeless Because of Permanent Supportive Housing

Singles and families living in permanent supportive housing are rightly not counted as homeless, though most probably would be without PSH. They are, however, accounted for in the MCOG report and its members’ reports to HUD.

And here’s where we see the explanation for the relatively low chronically homeless figures, especially for singles. In January, 4,230 singles were living in PSH units in the Distric — an increase of 730 over 2014. This represents a whopping 115.5% increase since 2008.

We also find more families who’d like as not have been chronically homeless were it not for PSH. The District reported 1,128 of them, somewhat over three times as many as in 2008.

Not Just More Data Points

At this very moment, the DC Council is chewing over the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Both the progress and the challenges the new count indicates should persuade it to support her proposed investments in both homeless services and affordable housing, including PSH — indeed, to make at least some of them bigger.

And I, getting back on my hobbyhorse, see yet further justification for her proposal to extend a lifeline, though thin to the 6,300 families who’ll otherwise lose what remains of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

If they’re not already homeless, they’re likely to be. And as things stand now, a goodly number will have to fend for themselves until the next severe cold snap because the Mayor’s budget won’t cover the costs of sheltering all with no safe place to stay when the multifarious harms they’re exposed to don’t include the risk of freezing to death.

Like I said, some bigger investments needed.

 

 

 


Food Hardship Still Common Nationwide and in DC

April 27, 2015

The Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship report delivers some moderately good news about households nationwide. But the news is only comparatively good — and pretty awful for households in some parts of the country.

How FRAC Reports Food Hardship

As I’ve written before, FRAC uses survey data Gallop collects on an ongoing basis from a large sample of households. They’re asked, among other things, “Have there been times in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

A “yes” is what FRAC refers to as food hardship. It’s roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food insecurity. But obviously, there’s more than just insecurity in not being able to afford enough food.

FRAC, indeed, entitles its report How Hungry Is America? The answers actually tell what percent of American households were hungry at least some of last year — nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

The report also includes household hunger rates for each of the 100 largest metro areas. These combine survey data for 2013 and 2014 so they’ll be reasonably accurate for what are mostly smaller populations.

The Big Food Hardship Picture

More than one in six households — 17.2% — experienced food hardship in 2014, according to the survey responses. This is hardly a figure to crow about. But it’s the first time the rate has been this low since the recession set in.

It hit 19.5% during the last four months of 2008, then varied from nearly as high to nearly as low as the latest rate. The latest rate held constant throughout the year, as apparently the earlier dips didn’t.

We see much more variation among states. The 2014 food hardship rate was over 19% in a dozen states — and nearly 25% in Mississippi. In only one state — North Dakota — was the rate less than 10%.

The picture further dims when we turn to the large metro areas — technically, the metropolitan statistical areas the federal Office of Management and Budget has carved out for agencies’ “statistical activities.”

Food hardship rates were higher than the national rate in all but 35 of the MSAs — and over 20% in 30 of them. These were mostly in the South and Mid-West, but we see pockets of widespread food hardship elsewhere, e.g., in several of California’s major agricultural centers.

Might it be that the law denying SNAP (food stamp) benefits to undocumented immigrants — and most of those here legally for less than five years — explains those egregiously high California rates?

Food Hardship in DC

The District’s food hardship rate was 15.9% — or nearly one in six households. This puts it just about smack-dab in the middle of the state ranking. Though the local unemployment rate has dipped, the District’s food hardship rate was a bit higher last year than in 2012 — and its ranking much higher, i.e., comparatively worse.

As I’ve remarked before, ranking the District among states if problematic because it’s a city — and would be even if granted statehood. But the MSA ranking is no better because the District is part of an area that includes some very well-off suburbs.

This is the perennial problem — and more consequential — with the affordability criteria for publicly-subsidized housing programs. We see it here in the fact that the MSA the District belongs to has a food hardship rate of 13.1% — the fourth lowest among the large metro areas.

Policy Takeaways

We can look at food hardship from two angles. One is not enough income. Too many people still jobless (and here in the District, half of them longer than unemployment insurance benefits cover).

Deplorably low cash benefits from other sources, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income. Too many jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family — or even a single person. Etc.

The other angle is a not strong enough anti-hunger safety net. I call it that because what we have, more in some places than others, is broader than the major federally-funded nutrition assistance programs we usually think of. Think, for example, about our donor-supported food pantries and meal services.

FRAC, however, understandably focuses on the largest of the federal anti-hunger programs — SNAP (the food stamp program). Republicans are clearly hostile to SNAP in its current form — if not to the program itself, than to funding it at the level needed to make hunger as rare as it ought to be in this country.

We know that SNAP benefits are too low to cover a full month’s worth of groceries — let alone a mix that would make for a healthful diet. We know, as I remarked above, that many immigrants can’t get them.

We know that the work requirements imposed on able-bodied adults without dependents cut them off from SNAP, even though they can’t find work or get into a qualifying job training program.

The Farm Bill that Congress finally passed last year could have addressed these problems. Instead, we were lucky that it didn’t make the last worse. And now, House Republicans may actually take a stab at converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have envisioned for five years now.

It’s sad when anti-hunger advocates and allies in the broader human needs community have to invest their limited resources in defense of a program that could do more to alleviate food hardship.

Sadder that some unknown number of people in nearly 20 million* households didn’t always have enough to eat last year.

* This is my calculation, based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 count of households.

 


DC TANF Program Short-Changed Core Purposes

April 23, 2015

My last post focused on the “cautionary tale” we can find in how states spent their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. Now here, as promised, is what we learn about the District of Columbia’s TANF spending.*

The figures are somewhat dated, but they’re still relevant to decisions the DC Council must make as it works on the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The District reported $254 million spent on TANF in 2013. Twenty-three percent went for cash assistance. This is a tad higher than the percent reported for 2012. But a family of three was still left at 26% of the federal poverty line. And that’s about where it is now, unless it’s one of the 6,300 families whose benefits have been cut three times already.

They’ll get zero, come October if the Council doesn’t approve the Mayor’s proposal to give them a one-year reprieve. Even if it does, our three-person family will have to get along somehow on $156 a month — roughly 9% of the current FPL.

The Bowser administration justifies the reprieve on the basis of continuing weaknesses in the employment component of the District’s TANF program.

I’ve previously reported the results of an audit that focused on outcomes for the parents facing benefit cut-offs who were actually referred to a contractor for job training and/or help in finding a job. Not encouraging.

But there are two other parts to this story. One is that some parents have had to wait for nearly a year to get those job-related services. This may be in part because the Gray administration froze additional funds for them.

And that’s perhaps because the Department of Human Services didn’t spend all the TANF employment funds in its budget, according to the new director. We certainly see what seems to be under-spending in the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report I’m using here.

Only 15% of TANF funds spent on work-related activities in 2013. And even this was a marked improvement over 2012, when only 7% went for what surely ought to be a top priority for a TANF program.

At the same time, the District spent an unusually low percent of its TANF funds on administration and systems — 2%, as compared to a nationwide 7%.

This matters because the DC Council enacted exemptions from the benefits phase-out for families facing specified hardships, i.e., difficulties, beyond the usual, that parents would face trying to support themselves and their kids.

One, added for the current year, would temporarily stop the time clock for mothers with infants to care for. But the department hasn’t actually granted this exemption. The reason, we’re told, is that it doesn’t have the computer capacity to suspend time-counting for the moms and their babies.

I personally believe that the TANF time limits merit rethinking altogether. DHS itself is looking into a policy that would convert the one-time hardship exemptions for at least some of the designated families and perhaps others into hardship extensions, as federal law has always allowed.

But that’s not even on the drawing board yet. The proposed reprieve is on the Council’s must-decide agenda.

A rollback of the benefits cuts should be too, given what we know about job training waiting lists — and the many months families had to wait for the assessments used to decide what training and/or other services they should get to give them a reasonable chance of success in the workplace.

Beyond these obviously urgent issues, the Council should, I think, take a hard look at how DHS spends its TANF dollars. In 2013, the department spent nearly as much on “non-assistance” as on work activities. What’s in this catch-all category is a mystery. Not the department’s fault, but rather a flaw in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ reporting format.

The new DHS director, unlike her predecessor, shared a break-out of TANF spending with parties interested enough to have attended a recent briefing. Some money here, some there, some someplace else.

I doubt the Council has ever delved into the dispersal of TANF funds. Every dollar may support something worthwhile. But the mechanism is hardly responsible — let alone transparent — budgeting.

And it inevitably diverts funds from cash support for very poor families and from work-related services that can help the parents get to the point where they can pay for their families needs.

These, I think most of us view as core purposes of the TANF program. And both the CBPP report and everything else we know suggests they’re being shorted.

* The TANF funds spent include the District’s federal block grant share and what it claimed as its maintenance of effort, i.e., what it spent of its own funds, plus funds that some nonprofits spent on at least on of the program’s four major goals.

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this post, I learned of a petition the Fair Budget Coalition has created to drum up Council support for the proposed reprieve. Some on the Council, I’m told, are in need of persuasion. So I hope those of you who are District residents will sign. You’ll find the petition here.


Another Take on the Proposed DC Sales Tax Increase

April 16, 2015

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute makes a case for the proposed increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax. It’s persuasive. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m persuaded that the increase will serve the interests of some of the District’s poorest residents better than a campaign to replace it.

So, in a semi-retraction of my earlier post, here’s what DCFPI says, fleshed out for those who haven’t been immersed in the issues and punctuated with remarks of my own.

The increase is very small. It would add a quarter of a penny per dollar to the purchase price of anything subject to the sales tax. DCFPI has figured that poor families would probably have to pay at most $25 more a year.

The District needs additional revenues for homeless services. The Mayor has said that the additional tax revenues would fund the first steps in making reforms laid out in the new strategic plan adopted by the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Her budget would, among other things, provide more permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families with a chronically homeless adult member.

It would convert a pilot rapid re-housing program for individuals into a regular program and expand it so that more of them who don’t need PSH could move from shelter into housing they’ll be able to afford — at least, till their short-term subsidy expires.

It would create some new, specially-targeted housing vouchers for individuals and families who no longer need the intensive services PSH provides, but can’t afford market-rate rents. Individuals and families who come to the end of their term in rapid re-housing, but still can’t afford those rents would also be eligible for the vouchers.

The budget would also dedicate funds to begin the process of closing the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter. About $4.9 million would pay rent to landlords who’ve offered up units — thus moving 84 families into more habitable living quarters swiftly.

All worthwhile investments, I think you’ll agree.

Other recent changes in the District’s tax code would more than offset the increased sales tax burden on lower-income residents. The DC Council enacted a higher standard deduction for income taxes last year. It expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, enabling them to get the same credit as from the federal EITC.

And it raised the income threshold for Schedule H property tax relief, which benefits renters, as well as homeowners. Elderly residents get a higher tax credit too.

Now, of course, residents with no earned income and not enough income from any other source to owe income taxes or pay rent won’t benefit from these changes. But “a large share of lower-income households” would come out ahead, even with the sales tax increase, according to DCFPI.

The Tax Revision Commission recommended the increase. Now, the Commission need hardly be the last word on the District’s tax policies. In fact, at least one of its recommendations made me cringe — a five-fold, plus increase in the dollar value of estates exempt from our local estate tax. (DCFPI didn’t like this either.)

At the same time, the Commission’s recommendations have credibility where it counts. The income tax and EITC changes I mentioned above originated with the Commission. So from a political perspective, the sales tax increase stands a better chance in the Council than some more progressive revenue raisers coming out of left field (pun intended). And we already have some evidence that any increase is likely to encounter headwinds.

The increase would make the sales tax rate the same as Maryland’s and Virginia’s. The point, I think, is not that the District should model its tax policies on its neighbors’. It’s rather that the new sales tax rate wouldn’t be higher than theirs — and thus tend to shift retail purchases across the borders.

Perhaps DCFPI is also giving preemptive reassurance to Councilmembers who’ve used Maryland and/or Virginia tax rates as arguments against tax increases here. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to have gotten Finance and Revenue Committee Chairman Jack Evans on board. Nor will it, I suspect. But he’s only one Councilmember out of what will soon be twelve.

Bottom line: I doubt the Council will adopt an alternative, more progressive revenue raiser to support reforms in our homeless services system. And I’m quite sure it won’t shift nearly $19 million from other programs to support them while leaving revenues alone.

If we want those homeless service reforms, then we’ve seemingly got to settle for a less than ideal way of getting money for them. And this won’t be the end of the story anyway because the sales tax revenues won’t cover the costs of putting all those needed reforms in place.

 


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