Inclusive Prosperity Programs Shortchanged in Mayor Bowser’s Budget

April 17, 2017

My last post merely mentioned shortfalls in the Mayor’s proposed budget, due at least partly to the $100 million or so she chose to forfeit by doing nothing to halt the automatically triggered tax cuts.

I’ll turn now to my picks for programs she shortchanges, based on how she styles her budget — a roadmap to inclusive prosperity.” Still only summaries. And not all programs some advocates have flagged.

Nevertheless, more than I can cover in a single post with enough substance to convey what’s under-funded — or unfunded — and why that violates the budget’s promise. So I’ll deal here with what seem the most obvious and followup with a couple of others that matter too.

Education and Training

We also all know that education and relevant job training generally move people along the road to some modicum of prosperity. For many adults in the District, the first step must be remedial education — basic literacy in reading and math, help in preparing for the GED exams.

For others, appropriate programs include those leading to a regular high school diploma and /or vocational education courses in other publicly-funded institutions, e.g., charter schools and alternative education in regular public schools like the Ballou High School’s STAY program.

Several surveys have found that adult learners miss classes because they can’t come up with the transit fare. Eighty-six percent of the youngest who had subsidized transportation said it would hard or altogether impossible to attend without it.

No reason to believe that’s not true for at least as many older adults, who’ve often got to spend more of such income as they have on basic needs for both themselves and their children. And, of course, we’ve got to assume that some of all ages drop out.

The Deputy Mayor for Education recommended an adult learner parallel to the Kids Ride program, which covers the public transit costs of getting to and from school.

Not a big ticket item—a mere $1.5–2 million. But no money in the Mayor’s budget for it.

Double-Duty Work Support

The full, unsubsidized cost of child care in the District is higher, on average, than in any state. Though low-income parents are officially eligible for subsidies that help pay for it, as a practical matter it’s difficult, if not impossible to find a center that will accept them.

This is a long-standing problem rooted in the insufficient rates the District uses to reimburse providers. For this, among other reasons, it was shy roughly 14,000 slots for infants and toddlers in 2015.

They’re the most costly to care for properly, what with diaper changing, feeding and all — hence local center charges averaging $22,658 a year.

The kids are too young for pre-K, of course. But the quality of care, e.g., nurturing relationships, talking to, has more impact on brain development than at any later stage. The very young children who get it will do better in school — and thus have a better chance of sharing in prosperity.

Now, if you can’t find trustworthy care for your child, you’re unlikely to work. Nor enroll in an education or training program that would prepare you to do so. And you won’t do either if you can’t pay for it.

Charges for licensed childcare are likely to increase, since the District recently set new licensing standards that require not only teachers, but their assistants to have at least a two-year college degree, unless they’ve got an independently-awarded Child Development Associate credential.

Those who manage to get either surely — and reasonably — will expect increases in their pay. It’s already, on average, extremely low — $26,470, on average, according to the latest figures.

If they don’t get them they can find employers that will. And that’s likely to further reduce open slots, since replacing them would be as difficult as keeping those who left.

Yet the Mayor’s budget doesn’t nothing about this. It would instead put $15.3 million into a new initiative to increase center capacity. But the new slots would be market rate — helpful for better-off parents, but no help at all for the most in need of affordable care to move down her road.

Paid Family Leave

The Mayor proposes no funding to translate the paid family leave law the Council passed into an operating program.

That requires both the creation of a new agency to administer the law, e.g., to ensure employers pay what they owe, pay out to eligible workers for the time off they take, and a new computer system to make all this possible.

We know the Mayor doesn’t like the law. But the essence of being an executive is executing laws.

Forcing more than half a million workers to wait for who knows how much longer to either keep working when they need time off for compelling  for compelling family reasons — or at least as likely forgo needed income — hardly comports with including them in prosperity.

Her refusal to propose the $20 million needed to get the program started doesn’t, I think, reflect only spending constraints imposed by her deciding not to even hit the pause button on the tax cuts. But they do perhaps provide some cover.

Advertisements

DC Paid Family Leave Law Back on the Drafting Table

February 23, 2017

Last week, workers in the District of Columbia seemingly gained the opportunity to take off time from work for compelling family reasons without forfeiting their entire pay.

This, of course, is especially important for low-wage workers, who are least likely to have any sort of paid family leave benefit and least likely to have enough saved to carry them and their families through times with no wage income.

The bill the Council passed — the Universal Paid Family Leave Amendment Act — has gone over to Congress, which can block it. But the responsible House Committee probably won’t even try before the time limit expires, what with its focus on other interventions and members now back in their homes bases.

The Mayor, who’d never liked the bill, refused to sign it. Wouldn’t veto it either, knowing the required majority of Councilmembers would override. But the law’s still not a finished piece of business.

In fact, the Mayor and heavy-hitters in the business community have succeeded in opening up the whole scheme again — always what opponents of a law aim for, since they have new opportunities to carve out exceptions, preferences and the like.

The Council Chairman, a strong supporter of the original bill, has said he’ll propose an alternative, hoping to quell the adamant opposition expressed by spokespersons for the business community.

But, he adds, the benefits won’t change. Doubtful then that the alternative will satisfy the Mayor, whose letter explaining why she wouldn’t sign the bill doesn’t accurately reflect what she said before.

Specially, she now says she’s gravely concerned because residents who work for the federal government or outside the city won’t get the benefit. She earlier, however, objected instead to coverage of people who worked for non-government employers in the District, but lived outside the city limits.

This, one notes, echoes the DC Chamber of Commerce, which also, of course, strenuously objects to the miniscule 0.62% payroll tax that would create the fund for paying the benefits.

One can surely understand the Chairman’s concern that the Chamber, the local Restaurant Association and other business groups will encourage members to resist what they must do to make the law work well — if not overtly, then by doing as little as they can possibly get away with.

One can also understand the Chairman’s concern about the Mayor’s response to the law — specifically her refusal to do the first necessary thing to make it work.

That would be including funds in her proposed budget to establish and then sustain the administrative apparatus needed to collect the required payroll taxes and then start using the funds to compensate eligible workers for their pay losses.

Lacking funding in the Mayor’s proposed budget, the Council would have to find the money — in other words, to shift funds from other programs, raise more revenues or some combination thereof. The District’s not truly short on money, but it’s already got pressing needs for more.

And as I’ve said, several times now — and as the Mayor said too — it faces likely, though as yet uncertain losses of federal revenues. Yet she’s responsible — or ought to be — for ensuring District laws have funds for administration, including enforcement.

Now here’s the thing that’s most striking to me. She had ample time to propose her own bill or, perhaps more politically savvy, changes in what the Council was crafting. Nada.

And we’ve nothing more now. Just the non-veto objections to what a substantial majority of the Council passed and her virtual charge to “revisit” it. Where’s the leadership here?

In any event, the Chairman seems inclined to consider the vocal business community’s preference for a mandate, rather than a payroll tax.

A bill reportedly just introduced by Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh moves in this direction, but without relieving larger businesses and other comparable organizations, e.g. hospitals, universities, of any tax at all.

Specifically, it would reduce the payroll tax to 0.2% for larger employers (those with more than 50 employees) and to 0.4% for small employers. The larger would then have to fund the same paid leave benefits the current law requires however they saw fit.

The payroll tax would, as the current law envisions, create a funding pool to pay the benefits covered workers would receive when taking time off for certain personal and family needs.

Funds would apparently still be collected, managed and distributed by a District agency. But payouts would go only to workers for small businesses and other small-staffed organizations in the District, e.g., nonprofit service providers, research and advocacy organizations.

This, at first glance, would seem like a reasonable compromise. Whether it would satisfy the local Chamber of Commerce, Restaurant Association and other employers that fretted remains to be seen.

Likewise the Mayor, who’s understandably deferred a substantive response until her staff have delved into the bill itself. Worth noting, however, that she wouldn’t say whether she supports the benefits it preserves.

Nor whether it allays any of her other concerns, including the administrative costs District budgets would have to cover.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman — a champion of the original bill and now one of the advocates who’s outspokenly distressed by the move to change it — reportedly views the new bill as problematic because it would require a new agency or the equivalent to ensure that larger employers complied with their payroll tax obligations.

But we’d have needed provisions for enforcement anyway. And only the District can enforce its laws, though it could contract out the routine administrative functions. An earlier report on Councilmembers’ predilections suggested Evans might argue for this.

More to the point, Silverman questions whether the lower payroll taxes will suffice to cover the benefits workers for small employers will still be entitled to. One would hope that the Council would seek a disinterested, reliable projection.

Needless to say, some other ardent backers of the paid leave law are, like Silverman, distressed (to put it mildly) by the Council Chairman’s decision to even tamper with the paid leave law — “delaying and sabotaging” it, says a local union official on behalf of the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign.

I wouldn’t go there at this point. We need, I think, to have a strong paid family leave law that has as many affected and other actively interested forces on board as possible.

A lot of work to do before — and after — covered workers can actually start taking leave without forfeiting all their pay. And it won’t get done effectively unless the Mayor exercises the leadership that only she can.


Congress Likely to Worsen DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

February 16, 2017

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute recently hosted a gathering to discuss how the District of Columbia could continue making progress in the face of uncertainty — largely due to the unsettled and unsettling prospects for programs that depend on federal funding.

DCFPI Executive Director Ed Lazere led off his remarks on the self-imposed budget constraints I’ve already blogged on by identifying affordable housing as the District’s number one challenge.

A challenge too for residents, especially the lowest-income households — and one they can’t overcome on their own.

About 26,000 of these households pay more than half their income for rent, as compared to the 30% that’s the general standard for affordability. A large majority pay 80% or more. Hard to imagine how they get by, even with public benefits. And they often find they can’t.

The District has several locally-funded programs that enable some of these lowest-income households — technically, extremely low-income households — to live in units they can afford. It’s tended, however, to give these households short shrift, as the DCFPI report I’ve cited shows.

So the District could make different choices. But it would still have to depend in part on federal funding.

And that, as I’ve already said, is a big uncertainty that the District, like states and other local communities faces now. What I didn’t mention is a further source of uncertainty — the DC Housing Authority’s participation in the Moving to Work pilot program.

Basically, MTW allows participating housing authorities to treat funds for housing vouchers and the two main sources of public housing funding as a block grant.

This means, for example, that they can use funds appropriated for housing vouchers to make repairs and renovations that keep public housing habitable. They can instead defer some public housing work to make up for voucher funding shortfalls, though the data suggest they haven’t.

They may also shift funding appropriated for the type of vouchers that enable recipients to rent at market rates to the type that’s attached to particular units in privately-owned projects. Or vice versa.

So caveats abound as we look at what the District — and its lowest-income residents — seem likely to face when Congress decides, as it eventually must, how much to appropriate for vouchers.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives us a starting point. About 11,160 District households had Housing Choice vouchers last year, it says.

These are only the first type of vouchers I mentioned — commonly known as tenant-based because the subsidy goes where the recipient finds a unit to rent.

The appropriations bill the Senate passed would eliminate funding for 139 of these vouchers. A bill that simply extends last year’s funding through the end of this year would leave the District shy funding for nearly 560.

The latter is considerably more vouchers than DCHA customarily awards to other households because those who had them are no longer eligible. What then? I asked DCHA staff and have thus far heard nothing.

I’d like to think, as I’m sure we all would, that we’ll never know — and not because DCHA apparently prefers, at this point, not to put its cards on the table. Nor because its annual MTW reports don’t enable us to trace recent funding shifts.

What we can bet good money on, I think, is that DCHA won’t have more federally-funded vouchers to make a dent in its 41,000 or so households on its still-closed waiting list.

Nor enough to relieve other extremely low-income households that are shy on money for food, transportation, health care, etc. — and one further hit to the budget away from homelessness.

Doesn’t mean that the fate of so many thousands of residents lies solely in the hands of Congress and our mercurial, distracted President.

It does mean, however, that the Mayor and DC Council will have some harder choices to make—and a couple that shouldn’t be hard at all.


Local Nonprofits Tell DC Leaders Not to Govern With Hands Tied

February 1, 2017

Shortly after I published my latest blast against the District of Columbia’s triggered tax law, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and about 50 other local organizations sent a letter to the Mayor and Council urging them to take the same steps I characterized as first priority defenses against prospective federal spending cuts.

They also recommend changing another law, which requires the District to put any funds not spent by the end of the fiscal year into savings accounts. That makes them unavailable for a wide range of critical needs, including those that may lose federal funds.

The sign-on list is still open. If you work for an organization that would like to join, you’ll find the instructions at the end of the letter. A fairly quick and easy way to support progress in these times of extraordinary uncertainties.


Perilous Time for DC to Trigger More Tax Giveaways

January 30, 2017

We’re into the budget season here in the District of Columbia. The Bowser administration is busy preparing its proposal, aiming to send it to the Council in early April. That will trigger hearings, then votes — first by the committees responsible for the major budget areas and then by the Council as a whole.

Budgets are always somewhat of a crap shoot because officials don’t know how exactly how much the District will collect in taxes and fees.

More importantly, they don’t how much the District will receive from the federal government and for what. But they have to factor some figure in for roughly a quarter of what the District will have to spend.

That figure is much more iffy this year for several related reasons. First, we’ve got a new President — and one that’s set on making major changes that would have both direct and indirect effects on the District’s budget.

Second, it’s doubtful anyone, except maybe insiders will know what’s in his final proposed budget before the Mayor finishes hers. The problem here is that District agencies base their budget input in part on the prospective budgets of the agencies from which they regularly receive grants.

The estimates are always just ballparks, of course. Congress can — and often does — change proposed spending levels. Or makes no changes in what it’s currently approved — something it often does, though rarely for all federal budget areas and the entire fiscal year.

But uncertainty this year will be extraordinarily high. Would be even without Trump’s threat to withhold grants from cities that don’t participate in the federal government’s immigrant deportation efforts.

The Hill reports that the administration aims to send “an initial budget proposal” to Congress long about the second week in March, but that it’s likely to run into big-time flak from some Congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate.

Can’t count on easy sailing through the House either, especially if it reflects, as rumored, either or both the Heritage Foundation’s radical downsizing blueprint and Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure over the next 10 years.

Well, Congress has to do something by the end of April to prevent a government shutdown. But what that bill will look like is anybody’s guess.

What’s lots more certain are cuts to a range of non-defense programs — not only those that depend on annual spending decisions, but like as not Medicaid. But nobody can know for certain which, how much and when they’ll set in.

And nobody knows how the economy will fare. Dire warnings of a recession — in part, just because it’s time for one, though some economists also cite policies Trump has promised, e.g., new trade barriers.

As always, a recession will drive down local tax revenues, while increasing needs (and eligibility) for safety net programs that the District funds in whole or in part.

One would think that District policymakers would want to make extra sure that the ongoing revenue stream, plus money in savings accounts will cover the community’s critical needs — or at the very least, minimize the need for cuts.

Yet District law requires specified tax cuts whenever projected revenues exceed those projected for the prior fiscal year — this no matter what a longer-term forecast might indicate or what seems likely on Capitol Hill.

As a practical matter, this means that the District could give away millions of dollars — and not just for a single year, but for good, unless the law is changed.

As I’ve said before, Councilmembers didn’t carefully consider the automatically triggered tax cuts before agreeing to approve them.

The Chairman tucked them into the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act, the package of legislation needed to make existing laws consistent with the budget proper, shortly before the first required vote.

How Councilmembers would have voted after public hearings, written testimony and committee discussions of the triggers is an open question. But that was then, and this now — a very different now from several years ago.

Different not only in ominous prospects for federal funding, but in pressing needs that call for more local funds. They’re mostly not brand new, but more urgent, for various reasons.

They include a remedy for the also hastily-passed rigid time limit on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Also high on the list are increased investments in affordable housing for the lowest-income residents, both those who are homeless now and those at high risk because they’re paying at least half their income for rent.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has cited some others, e.g., more for public schools due to increased enrollment and rising costs, improvements in our aged, hazardous Metro system.

DCFPI and other local advocacy organizations earlier recommended a pause in the triggered tax cuts. It’s surely high time the Mayor and Council do that and set the revenues saved aside to help offset federal spending cuts the upcoming budget didn’t account for.

Didn’t, as I said, because it couldn’t. And sadly, neither the District nor any state can fully offset what they could lose in federal funds.

The DC auditor reports that just the “rollback” of the Medicaid expansion piece of the Affordable Care Act, i.e., the enhanced federal match for newly-eligible beneficiaries, would cost the District $563 million next fiscal year alone.

Just one of many signs that the District needs every penny it now collects in fees and taxes.


What We Know (and Don’t) About How DC Spends Its TANF Funds

January 19, 2017

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will soon have to make a critical decision: What to do about the families that have reached the rigid time limit local law sets on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As I said before, a working group convened by the Mayor has recommended significant revisions to the law. They include both indefinite-term extensions for parents who are complying with requirements set for them and ongoing benefits for their children, no matter what.

This would be probably the single most important thing the District could do now to alleviate poverty. It arguably would save money too — in healthcare costs, for example, homeless services and special education for children who’d suffer brain damages due the high levels of stress that acute poverty can cause.

But sustaining TANF benefits beyond the point that federal block grant funds can be used for them won’t be cheap. So where will the money come from? No one, to my knowledge, has figured that out yet. And it’s certainly beyond my ken.

But it’s worthwhile, I think, to look at where the District’s TANF funds are going now. We have a partial answer from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which publishes annual state-by-state analyses of TANF spending, based on reports states must submit to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Center proceeds from the view that TANF has three core purposes—cash assistance, work activities and child care. These reflect a widely-shared view that the program should serve as a safety net and help parents get (and keep) jobs that will pay enough to make them more self-sufficient.

The District spent only 63.% of its TANF funds, i.e., its share of the block grant, plus local funds, on the core purposes in 2015.

This is relatively more than states as a whole spent. But it still leaves a lot of money to account for — about $99 million, assuming the reported total spending is right.*

Drilling down, we see that the District spent 26% of its TANF funds — roughly $70 million—on cash assistance.

An additional 14% — somewhat over $37 million — went for work activities, most if not all of this presumably to the organizations the District contracts with to provide services that help parents prepare for and find work.

Another 22% — a generously rounded $60 million — funded vouchers that subsidize child care for low-income families. These need not necessarily all be families in TANF. But TANF families are a top spending priority so long as parents fully participate in their required work activities.

The District used 7% of its TANF funds — nearly $18.7 million — for refunds from its Earned Income Tax Credit, i.e., money paid to workers whose allowable income tax claims exceeded their liabilities.

Needless to say (I hope), few of the recipients were TANF parents. As the name suggests, only people with income from work can claim it. They need not be poor or even nearly so. For example, a parent with two children remains eligible until she earns $45,000.

The EITC is nevertheless generally viewed as a powerful anti-poverty measure — in part because it puts money into people’s pockets and in part because it provides an added incentive to work. To this extent, it’s consistent with the over-arching purpose of TANF.

Those keeping track will note that we’ve got about $80 million left to account for — a larger percent than any core purpose received. It’s also a considerably larger percent left over than states as a whole reported.

The Center puts it all but administrative costs into an “other services” bucket. HHS allows states to report some spending as “other” too, but not spending on as many different things as could be left after what I’ve thus far itemized.

So where did the millions go? I asked the Department of Human Services and have thus far not received an answer. I’m hopeful, however, because looking at those “other” items in light of TANF families’ needs seems a useful exercise.

We — and the DC Council — could then better decide if each and every one of those unspecified programs and/or services should continue to receive a share of TANF funds if that means that core purposes don’t get enough.

And should they continue to receive them if the administration and Council then can’t find enough to extend a lifeline to all the at-risk TANF families?

* The Center reports that the District spent about $267 million in TANF funds. This is nearly $100 million more than its share of the block grant, plus the local funds it must spend. The Center accounts for $2 million as block grant funds left over from a prior year, but that obviously leaves more unaccounted for.


What We Know About DC Parents Up Against the TANF Time Limit

November 3, 2016

The working group deputed to advise on the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program gathered various kinds of information before making the recommendations I recently blogged on.

Among the most influential, I’d guess, were two newly-gathered sets of data that tell us — and decision-makers — more about the 6,560 or so TANF parents whose families will be at or over the 60-month lifetime participation limit next October, unless the Mayor and Council agree to an alternative.

For one set, the Department of Human Services did what seems a limited analysis of the families’ case records. For the other — and to me, more enlightening — it asked the parents some questions. The working group’s report includes an analysis of the results.

They bolster the case for eliminating the time limit because they cast grave doubts on the parents’ prospects for getting — and keeping — jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their children. Not such grave doubts for all, however, if they’re given more time in the program.

Here’s a sampling of what we learn.

Twenty-two percent of the survey respondents reported they were working, but very few of them full time. All but 39% usually worked for no more than 30 hours a week.

The fact that most of those already over the time limit have children under 10 helps explain this, but so may the hiring and scheduling practices that depress earnings for so many low-wage workers.

Nearly half the working parents earned less than $250 a week. A mother with two children would need about $388 a week, every week, just to lift the family over the federal poverty line.

About half the parents hadn’t participated in TANF for 60 months running. Three-quarters of those who’d left had done so because they’d gotten a job and/or began earning too much for their families to still qualify.

About the same percent were back in the program because they’d lost their jobs or couldn’t find a job that would enable them to support their families. These may include the 11% who said they’d re-enrolled because they couldn’t afford child care. Seems they’d lost the subsidies TANF parents get.

Their resumes may have lacked proof of the high-level skills so many local employers require. Thirty-one percent of the parents surveyed said that lack of sufficient education and/or training made it difficult for them to work.

The same percent are currently trying to get a GED or high school diploma — hardly something they could invest as much (if any) time in if kicked out of the program.

They’ll have a hard time getting any job without even this minimal credential. The unemployment rate for working-age residents with less is nearly 20%, according to the most recent analysis we have.

More than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require at least some postsecondary education by 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects.

This, of course, suggests that the job market will remain very tight — if not get tighter — for the least educated TANF parents. Hence, the need to ensure that TANF will remain a safety net for them and their children.

But it also argues for eliminating the time limit in a different way because 38% of the at-risk parents are taking college-level courses now. And scholarships the District provides exclusively for TANF parents probably help them cover the costs, as do the childcare and transportation subsidies.

Lack of work experience caused problems for 35% of the parents — perhaps some of the same who cited insufficient education and/or training as a barrier.

Far from all parents face only these barriers. More than half cited at least one sort of health problem as a reason they weren’t working, looking for work or regularly participating in a TANF training program.

Physical health problems pose a barrier for well over one in three. The case review found 18% with mental health needs that remained unmet — presumably meaning that the parents still suffered from them.

The federal Supplemental Security Income program provides modest cash benefits for people whose disabilities make self-supporting work impossible.

But relatively few who apply get them — and none who can’t prove, among other things, that their disability will last at least a year (or that they’ll die sooner) and precludes any sort of paying work.

A top-flight TANF expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put the chances that the 60-month or over parents could make up for their lost benefits with SSI at no more than 10%.

Understandably, more than half the parents facing lifetime banishments from TANF believe it will be harder for them to meet their families’ needs. An additional 25% don’t know.

They’re, of course, viewing their prospects in today’s job market. Come the next recession — and one will come — there’ll be fewer job openings and more recently-employed people competing for them.

What then for the many thousands of families tossed out of TANF — and others who’ll reach the 60-month limit during the downturn?