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.


Insight Gained From Trying to Contact Social Security

February 2, 2015

My husband Jesse’s death has been a learning experience for me in many ways. One thing I’ve learned is why so many Americans who don’t have principled objections to major federal programs hate “big government” — and how spending cuts can build support for more.

Checklists I’d been sent told me that I should notify the Social Security Administration of Jesse’s death so that it would stop deposits to his bank account. Foreseeing, as I now know I shouldn’t have, some impending fraud claim, I went to the SSA website, thinking I could notify the agency there. Wrong.

So I called the 800 number. Recorded messages telling me things I didn’t need to know, e.g., the new cost of living adjustment, the Medicare Part B premium. Then a lengthy Q&A with an interactive program. Then a message telling me my wait time would be 45 minutes, but that I could get a callback instead. Opted for that. No call.

So called again. Same routine. Had to hang up after close to 45 minutes to take other calls. Try again. Same results. Finally decided what I should do is get an appointment at the nearest SSA office. Can’t do that on the website either. And so …. Well, you know what.

I finally got to a live human being after about 50 minutes. She told me I could schedule a telephonic meeting. The first available appointment was nearly six weeks away. For  me, this is really no big deal. But what if I’d depended on Jesse for financial support and urgently needed the ongoing survivor benefits I’d have been entitled to?

Frustrations like those I experienced are directly traceable to inadequate funding that has put the squeeze on services for many years. SSA simply doesn’t have the budget for anything like the number of staff it needs.

This is also the case for the Internal Revenue Service, which may be able to answer only 43% of taxpayer calls this filing season — and for the lucky minority whose wait times pan out, only to answer the most basic questions.

No answers whatever for people who don’t file by April 15. No more personal help with tax returns for low-income, elderly and disabled filers either. Well, what do you expect when the agency’s budget, in real dollars, is about 17% less than in 2010.

“The way Congress has been handling the funding of the IRS, it’s as if it wants us to hate the agency,” Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary observes. Indeed.

SSA and IRS aren’t the only agencies short-staffed. Blogger Paul Waldman recently posted a pair of charts showing how the federal workforce has shrunk over time. The more telling shows that the number of federal employees per 100,000 residents has dropped by 43% since 1968.

Ramping up automation and other “efficiencies” can do only so much. Only people can, for example, staff the visitors centers in our national parks, protect the wildlife (and the visitors) and plow the snow off the roads so the parks are accessible.

Anyone who knows how angry residents get when streets aren’t swiftly plowed after a snowstorm can imagine how angry some 135,000 people were at our federal government when they learned they couldn’t get into Yellowstone National Park for two weeks after it was scheduled to open.

Chalk this up to budget cuts — including, but not limited to the across-the-board cuts that affected all federal agencies in 2013.

I could run out other examples, but I think the point is clear. The spending-slashers have created a feedback loop. We expect reasonably timely, responsive services, especially when critical needs are at stake.

We’re driven around the bend by faceless bureaucrats, like the administrative law judges who taken an average of 422 days to rule on appeals when claims for disability benefits are denied, as they often are. Others, also faceless who don’t even put veterans needing medical care on a waiting list.

Bodiless, mindless bureaucrats, like what Jesse and I used to call the metal person who put me through the drill before I could get into the queue of calls waiting  at SSA.

Whether such frustrations translate into self-defeating support for further cuts to specific agencies’ budgets isn’t altogether clear.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times, among others, perceives “a political motivation” in the case of SSA — specifically, that conservatives aim to make Social Security “less relevant” to everyday folks so they’ll be more willing to accept an alternative, e.g. private retirement savings accounts.

Maybe. What I’m more confident of is that unduly slow, insufficient and/or messed-up services help persuade Americans that the federal government is too damn big and ought to be retrenched.

That, of course, serves radically-right Congress members well, since they’d like nothing better than to pare off all but a few core functions, leaving the rest to state and local governments, private businesses, civil society organizations and individuals themselves.

Method in what seems the madness of forcing IRS staffing cuts that will cost the federal government at least $2 billion this year alone in taxes dodged or inadvertently not paid.


TANF Safety Net Keeps Fraying

December 19, 2011

Safety nets are supposed to catch people when they fall so they don’t crash to the ground. So too with what we call safety net programs. We’ve created them so that people don’t land in desperate poverty.

We’d thus expect safety net programs to catch more people when the economy tanks, as it did in late 2007. We’d expect them to provide enough aid to serve their basic purpose, i.e., ensuring that needy people have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, essential medical care, etc.

By this modest measure, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has egregiously failed — no surprise, given past performance.

A new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms this with two updated perspectives on the TANF safety net — what portion of poor families with children is it catching and how much is it helping those caught to meet their basic needs.

TANF Enrollment

TANF was created in 1996 to replace AID to Families with Dependent Children —  a program under which the federal government provided states with matching funds based on what benefits were costing and need.

“Welfare reform” converted this scheme to a fixed-sum block grant, plus a Contingency Fund states could draw on during hard economic times — until the Fund ran dry.

At the time, AFDC was providing cash assistance to 68% of poor families with children. Participation rates have been steadily falling — and not because fewer families were poor enough to need aid.

TANF did expand slightly — by 13% — after the recession set in. But in 2009, only 27% of families in poverty received any cash assistance from the program.

Cash Benefits

TANF cash benefits started out low — an average of about $395.50 a month for a family of three.

As of 2008, 28 states and the District of Columbia had increased the nominal value of the benefits they provided, but fewer than half enacted increases big enough to even keep pace with inflation.

Since then, inflation has continued to make dollars worth less. But most states have frozen benefit levels. Six states and the District have actually cut them.*

A perfect storm of reasons for this — mostly attributable to federal policies. Most important perhaps are the year-after-year failure to increase funding for the block grant and rules that allow states to use TANF funds for more politically-popular programs.

Add to these two recent decision by our penny-pinching Congress.

The first was to let the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund die, thus denying states more of the extra funding the Recovery Act had provided to help them cope with recession-related pressures.

The second, more recent denied 17 mostly poor states supplemental funds they’d been receiving since TANF was created and, at the same time, cut back what had already been approved for the regular Contingency Fund.

I don’t want to let states — or the District — off the hook here. They’ve been choosing to economize on TANF cash benefits for a long time. Even in tough economic years like these, budgets are choices.

Nevertheless, the federal partner has been shirking its share of responsibility for maintaining the TANF safety net — and allowing states to shirk theirs as well.

End result is that:

  • TANF cash benefits are worth less now than in 1996 in all but two states.
  • They’ve declined by at least 20% in 34 states and the District.
  • No state provides benefits that lift a family of three out of extreme poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.
  • In 29 states and the District, benefits for the family are below 30% of the FPL.
  • They’re below 20% in 14 states, nine of which have lost their supplemental grants.

This unfortunately may not be the worst of the bad news.

As CBPP earlier reported, a number of states have already projected budget shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2013.

They could face gaps they hadn’t expected due to the automatic spending cuts the debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal will trigger — or cuts Congress may pass to avert them.

* Unlike most of the state cuts, the District’s cut applies to families who’ve participated in TANF for a total of more than five years. And it’s progressive — first 20% less, then 25% less till there’s nothing left. The DC Council deferred the second round of cuts, but they’re scheduled to resume in 2013.


Congress Set To Slash Fund For Public Housing Maintenance

November 7, 2011

Public housing has gotten a bad rap — in some cases, deservedly so. We’ve all read, I suppose, about notorious warehouses of the poor like Chicago’s crime-ridden, dilapidated Cabrini-Green.

But, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reminds us, public housing comes in many sizes and types — from single-family dwellings to apartment complexes.

For about 1.2 million low-income seniors, families and individuals with disabilities, public housing means home and community.

It’s an endangered affordable housing option — and has been for some time.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan says that 105,000 affordable units have been lost through demolition or sale since 1995. Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project puts the figure at closer to 280,000.

Many reasons for this, including public policies that favor mixed-income developments and dispersal of the poor. These have probably contributed to the egregious neglect of many still-standing public housing facilities.

According to the latest assessment for HUD, public housing has an estimated $25.6 billion backlog of capital needs for repairs and renovations.

Yet Congress seems poised to slash the Public Housing Capital Fund, which provides grants that help local housing authorities keep (or make) their public housing livable.

Last spring, Congress approved just over $2 billion for the Fund — a miniscule down payment on backlogged and ongoing repair and rehab needs. This was a cut of nearly $500 million compared to Fiscal Year 2010.

The President requested about $4 million more for this fiscal year. Our spending-cutters in Congress would have none of it, as this table from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Transportation/HUD decided to cut the proposal by 25%, leaving the Capital Fund with $508 million less than it’s got now.

The Senate Appropriations Committee did just a bit better, with a cut of 22% or $165.1 million.

The full Senate recently approved this as part of a mini-omnibus budget bill, i.e., a package of three multi-agency appropriations bills, including Transportation/HUD.

What will happen next is hard to predict, but only from a process perspective.

Ordinarily, the full House Appropriations Committee and then the House itself would vote on the Subcommittee’s Transportation/HUD bill. Then House and Senate representatives would work out a compromise, which would go back to both chambers for final votes.

Or the majority leaders would decide they couldn’t possibly get all unfinished appropriations bills passed on time and instead roll them all up into one huge omnibus budget bill.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

The House Republican leadership is reportedly unenthusiastic about omnibus bills. And it might have difficulty getting its Tea Party wing to vote for one, even if it tried.

On the other hand, even its most right-wing members understand that the federal government must be funded at some level. And it won’t be unless Congress passes something — or some things — by November 18, when the current continuing resolution expires.

One way or the other, it’s hard to imagine that public housing won’t get shortchanged, as it has in the past.

And hard to imagine that we won’t see more public housing losses.

As everyone knows, housing deteriorates if its not maintained. Costs of repairing the damage grow exponentially. A leak in the roof turns into spreading rot. Faulty electrical wiring causes a fire. (Take it from one who knows.)

So, as in the past, public housing authorities are likely to decide to demolish neglected dwellings or sell them off to private parties who’ve got no obligation to restore them or replace them with housing that’s affordable for low-income renters.

Two years ago, 7.1 million very low-income households had what HUD terms “worst case needs.” In other words, they paid more than half their income for rent, lived in severely substandard housing or both.

This represents an increase of nearly 42% since 2001. We obviously need more federal funding to preserve public housing stock — and more federal housing vouchers too.

Congress has underfunded affordable housing programs for some time. Now it seems set to create even more worst cases.

More homelessness too.

NOTE: This is the second in a series on Fiscal Year 2012 HUD appropriations. The first — on housing voucher cuts — is here.