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?


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.)