Why DC Should End “One Size Fits All” TANF Time Limit

February 18, 2016

We often see “one size fits all” used to characterize programs of various sorts, including the District of Columbia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The services aren’t that way any more. But the time limit is.

Families can participate for a lifetime total of 60 months. For some, that’s enough. For many, it’s not because the parents can’t get — and keep — a job paying anything like what they need to support themselves and their children.

We can get a handle on the barriers these parents face from the extensions the bill I recently mentioned would provide. They signal the sweeping nature of the time limit in another way too — specifically, that it denies benefits to children, who, of course, can do nothing to support themselves or make their parents more employable.

Different Extensions for Different Situations

Some of the proposed extensions would apply to parents who just need more time to surmount the barriers they face. Others recognize that some parents or substitute caregivers will probably face barriers until the kids are grown — longer, in fact, but they won’t be eligible for TANF any more.

This isn’t to say that we can use the extensions to neatly classify each TANF parent who might qualify. In some cases, it’s hard to say whether a parent just needs another year or so of cash support and services or whether further services probably won’t boost her over the barrier — or barriers — between her and gainful work.

The plural here because we shouldn’t assume that each parent faces only one barrier, as the Urban Institute’s analysis of the District’s TANF caseload clearly shows.

We can nevertheless find in the extensions various reasons families shouldn’t get tossed out of the program because they’ve reached a fixed, across-the-board time limit.

Parents Who Just Need More Time

Some extensions imply barriers parents can often surmount. For example, we find one for parents who’ve experienced domestic violence and are still receiving counseling or other such services to help them cope with the trauma.

Another extension would apply to parents who’d have an unusually hard time finding a job because the local unemployment rate for workers without at least a high school diploma is 7% or higher.

Two extensions would tend to reduce the number eligible for the above. One would apply to teenage parents enrolled in high school or a GED program.

The other would buy time for parents enrolled in a postsecondary education program or a credential-granting program that’s passed muster with the Department of Employment Services.

If TANF is supposed to reduce dependency, as the federal law says, then forcing these parents to quit their studies and seek low-wage, unstable jobs — the only sort most could get — is obviously counter-productive.

Parents Up Against Seemingly Permanent Barriers

Here we find an extension for parents who have severe mental or physical disabilities, but haven’t qualified for either of the two main federal sources of cash support for people too disabled to work.

Another extension would apply to parents with learning disabilities that preclude employment. Still another, which might overlap, is for parents who can’t read at the level expected of eighth graders.

Another would apply to any parent or “caretaker” who’s at least 60 years old — this, of course, because anyone in that age bracket who’s jobless and has been for long enough to hit the time limit will more than likely remain so.

Parents Behaving Responsibly

The bill specifically conditions some extensions on a parent’s compliance with her Individual Responsibility Plan, i.e., the set of activities she’s required to regularly engage in and the services she should receive.

Some parents may not qualify for any of those I’ve highlighted, but are dutifully following their plans. They too would qualify for extensions, as well they should, since they’re doing their best to move from welfare to work.

Families Likely to Suffer Specific Hardships

The bill would provide extensions for families that suffer certain hardships due, at least in part, to the very low benefits they receive — and for others that would suffer them without the benefits.

These include families that are homeless or likely to be. Also reprieved are those that would effectively cease to be families because the children would be put in foster care. This itself is a child protection — and anti-poverty — measure, since we’ve ample evidence that children who grow up in foster care tend to fare poorly.

More generally, all children would have some protection from poverty so dire it’s commonly referred to as “extreme.” Even if their parents didn’t get an exemption, their own share of their families’ benefits would continue until they themselves became ineligible — when they reached legal adulthood, for example.

Reprieves, Not Repeal of the Time Limit

The bill doesn’t extend benefits indefinitely for the families it would protect. Generally speaking, their cases would be reviewed every six months, though the Mayor could set longer review periods — a sensible choice, given the nature of some barriers.

The bill does, however, do more than avert worse hardships. It rolls back benefits for exempt families to what they would be if the DC Council, with then-Mayor Fenty’s apparently hearty approval, hadn’t established the across-the-board time limit.

Both the extensions and the rollback tacitly admit the policy was a mistake. And I suppose that’s the best we can hope for — at least, in the near term.

And near term is where we need to focus because, as I (and many others) have said, 6,000 or so families, including more than 13,000 children will have no TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to change the policy — and thus on a budget that covers the District’s share of the costs.

 


Why Homeless People Aren’t Working … Or Working And Homeless Anyway

November 21, 2011

The tool I use to produce this blog provides some interesting stats — among them, my most-viewed posts. I note, with interest, that an old post makes the top-viewed list almost every week.

It’s entitled “Why Don’t Homeless People Just Get a Job?” Are people actually asking this, I wonder.

At the time I wrote, the recession was in full swing. Now it’s officially 29 months behind us. Yet we’re facing a big jobs crisis.

Not Enough Jobs

The unemployment rate is higher — stuck at about 9%. The number of jobless people actively looking has increased from 13.2 million to nearly 13.9 million.

And the economy has shed about 1.3 million more jobs. It would need to create more than 11 million to bring the unemployment rate back down to when the recession set in.

So one reason homeless people don’t get jobs is the same as the reason millions of housed people don’t. There just aren’t enough jobs out there.

But, of course, it’s not that simple.

Challenges to Getting the Jobs Out There

The very fact of homelessness makes work searches more challenging. Blogger Steve Samra — the source for my original post — speaks from first-hand experience about these.

But, as with the current job shortage, the biggest challenges, I think, aren’t unique to homeless people. They have to do with the reason people are homeless to begin with, i.e., not enough income to pay for a roof over their heads.

For some, there are barriers to gaining — and maintaining — employment of any kind. These include mental and physical health problems, substance abuse and other severe disabilities.

For those not too disabled to work, finding a job and then going to it may cost more than they can pay.

There are up-front and ongoing transportation costs. For some, also formidable child care costs and/or the also formidable costs of home care services for disabled family members who can’t get them through Medicaid.

And then there’s the big issue of job requirements.

Many communities have passed laws to clear homeless people off the streets — possibly away altogether. So homeless job seekers may have criminal records for loitering, storing belongings on public property, etc.

The National Employment Law Project reports that many employers are running criminal background checks to screen out applicants — even for entry-level jobs that involve negligible security risks. Others post job announcements that pre-screen.

And now applicants are being screened out because of bad credit records — an ironic Catch-22 for people who are trying to get work that will enable them to pay their bills.

Last but certainly not least is the issue of education credentials.

The monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics reports consistently show the highest unemployment rates for adult job seekers with less than a high school diploma or GED. Rates drop at each education level — down to a current 4.4% for those with a bachelors degree or higher.

We read that college graduates are accepting jobs as wait staff, truck drivers, sales clerks and the like. That’s tough competition for those who traditionally fill these jobs.

Working, But Still Homeless

Yet some fraction of homeless people are working. No national figure. So a little back-of-the-envelope from my hometown.

According to last January’s homeless count, 38% of homeless adults in families and 20% of single adults in the Washington, D.C. metro area were working.

No way of knowing how many of them were working full time or at what. We do know, however, that a full-time minimum wage job in the District, where the hourly rate is $1 higher than the federal minimum, would yield an annual take-home income of a little under $16,440.*

Rent on a modest one-bedroom apartment, including basic utilities would leave the worker with about $44.00 per month for all other expenses — less than the costs of bus fare to and home from a five-day a week job.

In short, we’ve got a complex of policy issues here — jobs, income supports, anti-homelessness laws, hiring practices, education, affordable housing and a minimum wage that’s worth less than it was 40 years ago.

There, Googlers. Aren’t you glad you asked? I am.

* This reflects deductions for Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes at the current reduced rate, but not what might be withheld for income taxes.


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