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?


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.)


What Made DC Councilmembers Back Off Just Hours?

October 27, 2016

Picking up where I left off on a dormant, though perhaps not dead proposal to make the lives of some low-wage workers less hectic — and perhaps less cash-strapped too.

I’ve already summarized the problems the proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have addressed, for whom and how. Here, as promised, are the main arguments that apparently persuaded a majority of DC Councilmembers to shelve it.

But I should first note that the bill the Council tabled was substantially different in various ways from the version opponents testified against. The responsible committee clearly sought to accommodate objections.

Nothing it could do, however, to placate the chain businesses the bill covered because they want to keep on doing exactly what they’re doing now. And, they say, their workers want that too. Or so one gathers from their champions who testified.

Our Businesses Are Unique

Spokespersons for retail stores, restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality sector, e.g., bars, nightclubs, all claimed that each and every one has unique staffing needs — and the best way of meeting them.

The bill would impose a “one size fits all” system — a case of government micromanaging operations “typically decided between employers and employees.”

Note here — and not here only — how the erratic schedules and insufficient hours workers have complained of become mutually agreed-on, win-win arrangements.

Workers Will Be Harmed, Not Helped

We’re told, by one spokesperson after another, that workers value the flexibility in their schedules. If they can’t work the hours they’re scheduled for, they just tell their manager, who usually finds someone else to fill in.

But that wouldn’t happen any more because the business would have to pay that someone for an extra hour.

This is true, but only if the manager asked a particular worker to fill in. The business would then owe her, on average, less than twelve bucks, I figure. No such hit to the bottom line if workers just agreed to switch hours or freely volunteered. So the much-touted flexibility isn’t necessarily hampered.

We find other overblown harms in the testimony. The National Restaurant Association, for example, claims that the bill “prohibits restaurants from offering part-time employment to new employees.” But it doesn’t.

It could, however, deny some prospective workers part-time jobs because businesses would have to offer current part-timers more extra hours first. Several spokespersons referred specifically to students trying to earn money to pay for their educations.

Some still might gain jobs in the covered businesses. But they couldn’t count on schedules that would let them go to classes, do their homework, etc.

More generally, spokespersons equated part-time work with “flexibility” that accommodates workers’ needs. That’s, in fact, how large retail stores “create and maintain” their schedules now, says a senior vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Reading the testimony I’ve summarized here, I felt as if transported to an alternative universe. Schedules designed as workers want them, readily changed when they ask, generally far less than full time because that’s their preference.

What then to make of the fact that four out of five low-wage D.C. workers surveyed said that getting more hours was important to them? Or that nearly one in four said they’d been disciplined and/or told they might be fired when they asked for a different schedule?

Or the McDonald’s cook who was told she’d have to choose between work and going to school?

The District Is Piling On

The curbs on erratic schedules, pay disparities and hiring are the straw that would break the camel’s back, all the heavy hitters said.

Businesses already have to pay a higher minimum wage. They’ve got to provide some (modest) amount of paid sick leave. They’ve got to provide a transportation benefit (though not necessarily to pay for what their employees must shell out to get to work and home again).

They can’t automatically refuse to consider job applicants who’ve got criminal records. They’ve got to deal with tougher protections against wage theft.

The fast food restaurants and other carryouts have had to switch from styrofoam cups, plates and the like to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

The skyrocketing growth of the local restaurant industry has already slowed — not because the market is reaching capacity, as one might think. More likely the collective impact of the mandates, says the National Restaurant Association’s local affiliate.

Both it and its parent warn that the hours and scheduling requirements will stunt the growth of “homegrown chains” because they’ll chose to open only as many restaurants as will keep them exempt (and far less profitable than they might be).

So the District will forfeit tax revenues — not only what the restaurants would pay, but what workers who live here would. Because, make no mistake about it, the bill’s a job killer. Further proof that the District is not “a business-friendly city.” Thus, a further incentive for businesses to locate just across the borders.

How often have we heard this, folks? How often the claim that proposals to help low-wage workers will harm them instead?

Others Dampers on the Bill

I don’t want to leave the impression that the bill would have solved the problems low-wage workers struggle with. Nor that a Council majority would have passed it if spokespersons for the retail and restaurant chains hadn’t come out with all guns blazing.

The Bowser administration didn’t expressly oppose it. But the Director of the Department of Employment Services leaned heavily on the negatives — mainly, but not entirely related to compliance and enforcement.

Basically, a very business-friendly position, reflecting the Mayor’s. So she might have vetoed it. We’ll never know.

But the initiative will rise again from the ashes. The head of the recently-formed Subcommittee on the Workforce has announced a public roundtable* on fair scheduling for November 3. So we can look for another lively exchange — and, I think, another bill.

* A roundtable is essentially a hearing open to testimony by anyone who signs up or submits a written statement by date certain.


Just Hours Not Just Yet, DC Council Decides

October 20, 2016

A DC Council majority recently decided to table a bill that would have given some low-wage workers more predictable schedules — and, in some cases, more wage income too.*

The nay-saying Councilmembers could have let a newly-formed subcommittee try to fix what troubled them, as its chair urged them to. They instead killed the proposal for the rest of this Council session — and, of course, opened the door to further efforts to block it.

We’ll surely see them, since they succeeded so well this time. We might also, I suppose, expect efforts to further scale back the worker protections that the tabled bill provided — just in case the Council won’t altogether cave again.

I’d thought to dive right into the debate, but realized it wouldn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t know what the parties were arguing about. So I’ll deal here with the bill itself and why supporters (self included) say it’s needed. Look for the arguments that apparently won the day in a followup.

Which Workers Would Have Benefited

Only some workers in the District would have gained schedules they could rely on for even a couple of weeks — or the chance to gain more hours, also more predictable.

The bill set requirements only for retail businesses, including restaurants that were part of chains — at least five nationwide for businesses that sell goods and at least twenty for restaurants.

The report that inspired the bill focused mainly on workers employed by retailers, restaurants and other food services businesses, e.g., grocery stores, but the survey it reflected also included others — people who work for cleaning services, for example, and for parking lots and garages.

So the bill could have gone much further than it did — and, in fact, went further when introduced. The committee that narrowly approved the bill revised it to exclude hotels, healthcare facilities and six other types of enterprises.

Why Workers Need Predictable Hours and Schedules

The aforementioned report cites several major problems that irregular schedules cause, though the survey also picked up problems all low-wage workers face, i.e. simply not enough money and the consequences thereof.

Erratic schedules specifically make it very difficult for workers and their families to budget, since pay is inevitably erratic too. The workers can’t take second jobs to ease the financial stress because they may have to show up at the first.

They can’t improve their prospects in the labor market by getting more education or training — again, because they don’t know which hours they’ll be free.

They struggle with childcare arrangements, not knowing when they’ll need someone to look after the kids. Nor, one guesses, whether they can pay the fees when due. Further problems, including extra fees when they can’t pick their kids up on time.

And still other problems when they or their kids need medical or dental care, when they need to talk with a teacher, etc.

National research and advocacy organizations have flagged problems of another sort — threats to the safety net benefits many of the workers and their families need.

Some must work a certain number of hours regularly to get them — those in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example, and those without children or other dependents who rely on SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Those in any of our major safety net programs can lose some or all of their benefits when their incomes rise. But then their incomes will probably fall again. And getting those benefits back takes time — especially, as CLASP notes, when a sudden schedule change forces them to miss an appointment.

What the Bill Would Have Done

The proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have done three major things. First, it would have required the covered businesses to give part-time workers more hours, if they wanted them, before hiring more part-timers.

Second, it would have required them to pay part-time workers as much as full-time workers with roughly equivalent jobs. An exception here, however, for pay differentials based on seniority systems like those built into some union contracts.

Third, the bill would have required the covered businesses to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance. No day-by-day — or even hour-by-hour — scheduling according to expected customer traffic.

The businesses could have changed schedules with a day’s advance notice, but they’d have owed an extra hour’s pay for that. More extra hours of pay if less warning.

This only if workers agreed to the scheduling change — in writing, as all the scheduling communications would have had to be. Workers could refuse and wouldn’t have to find someone else to fill in.

District law already requires employers to pay workers when they show up as scheduled and are told they’re not needed — or were scheduled for more than four hours and sent home sooner or told to sit around for awhile.

The bill would have extended a somewhat similar pay protection to workers told they should call in and be available to come in if needed.

It did, however, recognize that businesses sometimes need no workers because they can’t operate. They’ve no electricity, for example. A big snowstorm has shut down public transit. They been told to close because of a terrorist threat.

No pay owed in these or some other specified cases. Nor if a restaurant scheduled additional staff expecting a nearby event that got cancelled, thus reducing expected customer traffic.

In short, some carve-outs, but generally provisions that aim to make just-in-time scheduling and similar practices less profitable to some businesses that use them.

Or at least, seem less profitable. Relatively stable schedules can reduce turnover — and with it, the costs of hiring and training. They can also increase productivity because workers feel better, physically and emotionally — and do more to help the businesses do better because they feel better about them.

Trader Joe’s reportedly gives its workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance. And it’s doing just fine.

*  I’m linking to the Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee’s report, rather than the online version of the bill because the committee’s version reflects what the Council considered.


More Homeless DC Families to Shelter, But Still Signs of Progress

September 22, 2016

I remarked last year that the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness produced a markedly better plan for how the District would full its obligation to shelter homeless families during the winter season.

This year’s plan is similar, though with different numbers. It’s interesting in a couple of ways that speak to progress in the District’s homeless services program — and to problems that it alone can’t solve.

More Homeless Families in Need of Shelter

The estimated number of families the District will have to shelter is considerably higher than last year’s. This might seem a no-brainer. Last January’s one-night count identified 1,491 of them, marking the latest high in a virtually unbroken trend.

The shelter plan doesn’t project that many for this coming January. Nor need it, since the annual counts include families in transitional housing.

It does, however, indicate a significant shortage of units at the DC General family shelter, plus the apartment-style units the Department of Human Services regularly contracts for to shelter families with special needs.

DHS, as the plan makes clear, has already acted on the expected shortage, knowing it would have a deuce of a time contracting for motel rooms in mid-winter, what with the influx of visitors drawn by the inauguration festivities.

I mention this mainly because it’s a refreshing contrast to plans issued during the former administration, especially the last, which merely assured us that DHS would use some combination of “resources” to comply with the law.

More Homeless Families in Shelter When Winter Begins

The explicit reference to motel rooms and the number already contracted for aren’t the only — or most significant — contrasts. We see, for example, more families in DC General when the winter season formally begins, in November.

This reflects the Bowser administration’s decision to let families with no safe place to stay into the shelter year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days, when it has no lawful choice.

That was the unwritten policy until the Gray administration whittled it back and then altogether abandoned it. Predictably, a crush of homeless families sought shelter when they first could, creating problems not of their making.

I’m reverting to history here because it shows that what one finds — and doesn’t — in the annual Winter Plan signals policy and other management decisions. We see two others in the monthly estimates of shelter units needed.

More Homeless Families Than Projected Units Needed

Though the new plan begins with more families in shelter, it estimates fewer total units needed than families likely to show up at the intake center. This is partly because it includes estimated exits, as the last several plans also did.

Some unspecified number are families expected to move from shelter to housing temporarily subsidized by the District’s rapid re-housing program.

DHS has had long-standing problems meeting its rapid re-housing targets for various reasons. One, which still applies, is the acute shortage of housing that homeless families could conceivably afford to rent when their subsidies expire.

Another, related, has been families’ understandable reluctance to accept rapid re-housing. That may be less common now because they know they can return to shelter whenever they must.

It’s nevertheless the case that the Winter Plan estimates considerably more monthly exits late in the season than the current rapid re-housing placement rate. That, I’m told, has improved to an average of 100 families per month.

The plan, however, projects 155 exits in March, when winter officially ends, making for a 667 total during the five months it covers. Where, one wonders, will DHS — or families themselves — find so many low-cost housing units available to rent in a city where they’re disappearing.

Such as remain are hardly all available or suitable for families that surely want to exit from DC General at least as much as DHS wants them out.

More than a third of the units that the lowest-income District households could afford are occupied by those with higher incomes, according to apparently updated figures from the Urban Institute.

Only 8% of all the units have more than three bedrooms. A special exit problem then for families with more than a couple of kids — just as it’s apparently a problem for well over 100 families who’re affordably housed now.

Families Saved (for Now) From Homelessness

There’s another reason for lower total unit estimates than families likely to ask intake center staff for help. Last year, the District launched a program to prevent family homelessness.

It’s somewhat like the long-standing (and always under-funded) Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but it’s for families only and can provide a wider range of resources, tailored to their needs.

The success rate is reportedly very high — 90% of families referred to the nonprofits the District has contracted with haven’t become homeless. Or so it seems. What we know is that they haven’t  asked for shelter.

These early results, combined with the additional $1 million the new budget will invest in the program led the working group that developed the plan to adjust last year’s monthly entrance figures down by 10%.

One can only hope that the lower estimates prove accurate — and more importantly, mean that families aided actually have safe, reasonably stable homes of their own.

 

 

 

 

 


Total DC Poverty Rate Ticks Down Again (Barely). Rates for Blacks Rise.

September 15, 2016

CORRECTION: The overall poverty rate change for DC falls within the margin of error. A preview table I saw indicated it didn’t. But I should have verified.

The Census Bureau has taken to blasting out all its major poverty reports in rapid-fire succession. So we now have the results of the American Community Survey — not a report in the usual sense, but a huge number of online tables.

They cover a wide range of topics. And the ACS sample is much larger than what the Bureau uses for its two other annual reports. So we can get reasonably reliable figures for states and smaller jurisdictions.

I’ve again dug into a few tables for the District of Columbia — mainly those most directly related to poverty. We could, I suppose, take heart from another year of progress. But it’s modest and mixed. Both the extent of poverty in the city — and related inequalities — remind us how much remains to be done.

Poverty and Deep Poverty Rates for DC Residents Still High

About 110,380 District residents — 17.3% — lived in poverty last year. The new rate is just 0.4%* lower than the rate reported for 2014. It’s 2.6% higher than the new ACS national rate — and rates for all but eight states.

It’s also nearly 1% higher than the local rate for 2007, just before the recession set in. The population has grown since then. So the seemingly small rate difference means that the District is now home to about 18,600 more poor people. And they’re very poor indeed, for reasons I’ll touch on below.

Roughly 58,700 District residents — 9.2% of the total — lived in deep poverty, i.e., had incomes less than half the maximum set by the poverty threshold the Census Bureau uses for a household like theirs.

The new rate is perhaps 0.1% lower than the rate for 2014 — in other words, basically the same. It too is higher than the rate for the nation as a whole.

Child Poverty Rate Still Far Higher Than Overall Rate

The child poverty rate has consistently exceeded the rate for the population as a whole, both in the District and nationwide. The local rate last year was 25.6%. Like the overall rate, it’s 0.4% lower than the 2014 rate.

But it still represents about 29,710 children — about 300 more than in 2014 because, again, the rate reflects a somewhat larger population. It too is higher than the disproportionately high national rate.

More than half the District’s poor children — 15,088 — were deeply poor. The new rate is higher than the 2014 rate — 13%, as compared to 12.4%.

Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Large

Poverty is not an equal opportunity condition here in the District or anywhere else. As in the past, we see this writ in black and white in the ACS figures. Brown and tan also, though to a lesser extent.

Last year 26.6% of black District residents were officially poor, as compared to 6.9% of non-Hispanic whites. The deep poverty rate for the former was 13.3%, while only 4.5% for the latter.

Both rates for blacks were higher than in 2014. The plain vanilla rate for non-Hispanic whites was the same then, but their deep poverty rate somewhat higher.

For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 11.6% and the deep poverty rate 5.5%. The rates for Asians were 12.3% and 9.4%.

We see the same large disparities in the ACS figures for household incomes — a related, but broader indicator than the poverty rates.

The median household income for non-Hispanic whites was nearly three times the median for black households — $120,400, as compared to $41,520. Median incomes for Hispanic and Asian households fell in between.

The median for non-Hispanic white households was an eye-popping $63,400 more than the national median — an even larger difference than reported for 2014.

More Residents Suffering Hardships Than Poverty Rates Show

I always remark, at least in passing on the fact that the poverty thresholds the Census Bureau uses for analyses like these are very low.

They’re almost surely too low to accurately reflect the number of households without enough money for basic needs in communities nationwide. But they’re egregiously too low in high-cost communities like the District.

Consider, for example, a single mother with two children. They’re officially not poor if her income, before taxes was roughly $19,100 last year.

An affordable apartment for them would have had to cost no more than about $477.50 a month. But a modest two bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities cost roughly $980 more. It would have left the mom with about $1,580 for all her family’s other basic needs over the course of the year.

Even with SNAP (food stamp) benefits, she’d have been hard pressed to put enough food on the table in part because groceries here cost far more than the nationwide average, according to a cost-of-living database.

And the benefits assume she’ll spend 30% of her own adjusted income. So there goes a quite a bit of the money she’d have left after paying the rent. Probably more than her expected share, in fact. If not, then some hungry days for her.

She’d still have to pay for a host of other things, of course, e.g., clothes, soap, toothpaste and cleaning supplies, transportation. These aren’t necessarily costlier in the District than elsewhere. But we know daycare is.

She’d have to pay some part, even with a subsidy. The subsidy’s not a sure thing for a working woman like her, however. Without it, the average of cost even just after-school care for her kids would exceed her total income.

I don’t think I need to flog this point further. But we do need to put the new District poverty figures in perspective. [Your policy message here.]

* All the ACS tables include margins of error, i.e., how much the raw numbers and percents could be too high or too low. For readability, I’m reporting both as given. The overall poverty rate beats the statistical text, but others Small year-over-year changes may mean no real differences.


One Thumb Up for Washington Post Piece on TANF Benefits Cut-Offs

August 24, 2016

The Washington Post celebrated the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families with a well-meaning, but disappointing article on District of Columbia families who may soon lose what remains of their benefits.

It’s well-meaning because it focuses on what will happen unless the DC Council passes a bill to extend benefits for at least some of them. And it includes some potent warnings about costs the District will incur if it cuts off their cash assistance, thinking to save money.

But it doesn’t make the best case it could have for the extensions the Council is considering. And it leaves out an important piece of the cost issue.

First off, the TANF mom it chooses to focus on isn’t “the typical District welfare client,” as it claims. She and her partner live in a subsidized apartment. So her family’s receiving far more in safety net benefits than most who’ll lose what they get from TANF.

We don’t know how many TANF families are living with accommodating friends or relatives because they don’t have subsidized housing. But we do know that TANF was recently the most common source of reported income for homeless families the District counted, i.e., those in shelters or limited-term transitional housing.

More importantly, the profiled mother has worked in a series of jobs and has a certificate in emergency medicine technology. She says the couldn’t keep working because she couldn’t afford child care for the toddler she then had.

But if I understand correctly, she could have a childcare subsidy now — and for at least awhile longer if she found a new job. Both her work history and the unpaid work she’s doing now to comply with her TANF work activity requirement strongly suggest she could.

Many TANF parents have what are commonly referred to as severe barriers to work. We don’t have current public information on those who’ve exceeded — or will soon exceed — the rigid time limit the District imposes.

But a study of the caseload before the District set the time limit identified a range of barriers — some not swiftly (if ever) overcome, e.g., physical and mental health problems. At least one — learning disabilities — will last until the affected parents’ children are too old for the families to qualify for TANF.

Others, as I remarked before, could prove temporary if the parents have more time and the opportunities they need — a chance to complete high school or a GED program, for example, or to keep looking for a job so they won’t have to divert their energies and perhaps endanger their health the way some adults in extreme poverty must.

These are among the “hardship” cases that would gain extensions of their TANF benefits under the bill awaiting Council action — and, I should add, a formal response from the Bowser administration.

By far and away the largest number of District residents who’ll suffer extraordinary hardships if they lose their benefits have a work barrier they can’t possibly surmount in the near term because they’re children.

Plunging them into the deepest depths of poverty will put them at high risk of lasting mental and/or physical health damages.  So they’re like to have severe barriers when they’re old enough to work.

There’s a reason to refer to the potentially reprieved parents and children as hardship cases — one the Post article fails to mention.

The District could extend benefits for a fifth of its total caseload, based on a combination of domestic violence and “hardship,” however it defines that, and still use its federal funds for the families’ benefits. Benefits here include not only the cash assistance the article focuses on, but all the work-related services the program provides.

Any discussion of the cost of extensions should include this significant fact, as well as the costs of sweeping all the time-limited families out of TANF. Roughly 5,800 of them, including nearly 10,400 children will get swept out in October unless the Council and Mayor agree to reprieve at least some of them.*

But more families will reach the time limit every month unless and until the District adopts an extensions policy, as virtually every state already has. The cumulative impact is something else I’d like to have seen mentioned.

Ah well, that’s what blogs are for.

* These are figures the Department of Human Service recently provided, not to me or for public consumption. They are substantially lower than figures the department has reported earlier, for reasons as yet undetermined.