DC Council Makes Bad TANF Benefits Cut Worse

December 8, 2010

Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul!

DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray has pushed through a budget gap-closing plan for this fiscal year that takes cash assistance away from families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to fund adult job training — maybe some other things as well.

I say pushed through because Councilmembers didn’t get the final plan until the wee small hours of the morning the vote was scheduled. No time for them — or the public — to work through the details or come up with vote-ready alternatives.

I, for one, am feeling hampered by the lack of a clear account of the total package. But the stepped-up raid on TANF is clear enough.

As I previously wrote, Mayor Fenty seized on Councilmember Marion Barry’s now-repudiated proposal to impose a five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits for poor D.C. families.

Under his gap-closing plan, maximum benefits would have been cut by 20% for all families who’d been in the program for more than five years, whether consecutive or occasionally over a long period of time.

Gray’s version adopts this cut for the current fiscal year, then increases it by 20% each year so that post-five year benefits are fully phased out in Fiscal Year 2015.

No circuit breaker if the planned improvements in the TANF program don’t get fully implemented on schedule or deliver sufficient results. No exemption for victims of domestic violence or other singular hardships, though the District could still have used federal funds to support many, if not all of them.

Half the money saved will be invested in job training programs that target TANF recipients. Maybe Gray used some of the rest to restore the mayor’s proposed cuts to the adult job training programs operated by the Department of Employment Services.

But it’s hard to know how funds freed up in one area have been shifted to undo or mitigate proposed cuts in another.

Not hard at all to know that the phase-out of TANF benefits will work extraordinary hardships on for families who, for various reasons, can’t achieve sustained self-sufficiency. Or to know that it would never have materialized if Gray had decided to balance the budget by a reasonable mix of spending cuts and revenue raisers.

By the time of the vote, Councilmembers had a range of revenue-raising proposals in hand. Councilmembers Michael Brown and Jim Graham reportedly favored the single new top income tax bracket advocated by a large number of local organizations.

Councilmember Tommy Wells had a new income tax reform plan that would have created three new top tax brackets, the first beginning with a minimal increase at $75,000.

Councilmember Barry wanted to revive last year’s proposed expansion of the sales tax — anathema to the health club crowd, but still, I think, a good idea.

He’d also picked up on Councilmember Graham’s thoughts about increasing the tax on commercial parking fees. To these, added an increase in the District’s egregiously low minimum franchise tax.

But Gray decided to postpone any consideration of any sort of tax increase until next spring, when he has to produce his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2012.

Fat lot of good that will do the TANF families who’ll be pushed out of the safety net.

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Mayor Fenty Wants Five-Year Lifetime Limit On Full TANF Benefits

November 29, 2010

I thought the proposed five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits and other D.C. public assistance was dead.

Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, said he wouldn’t move it forward. Councilmember Marion Barry, who cosponsored and apparently initiated the bill, said he wouldn’t vote for it anyway.

“Imperfect and incomplete,” he called it. Really just all about starting “a dialogue on how to break the cycle of generational poverty, government dependency and economic disparity in the city.”

But the time limit has resurfaced in a different form in Mayor Fenty’s plan to close what’s now a $188 million gap in the current budget.

Scrolling through many lines I find inscrutable, I see that the Department of Human Services intends to reduce funding for TANF cash assistance by more than $4.6 million “to more closely align with federal policy.”

The proposed Budget Support Act, which would make District laws consistent with the gap-closing plan, shows that the purported alignment means an across-the-board 20% cut in the maximum TANF cash benefits available to participants who’ve been in the program for a total of more than five years.

This would mean that a District family of three could receive, at most, $342.40 per month — about 77% below the federal poverty line. This when the current maximum leaves the family short $133 per month, even if it has one of those scarce housing vouchers, plus all other standard forms of assistance.

We’ve been cautioned by Council Chairman Vincent Gray not to object to a budget cut unless we’re offering ideas for balancing the budget. Don’t know if the new top tax bracket I’ve joined in supporting would count. The latest letter that Save Our Safety Net has drafted for us says it would raise at least $65 million.

Still, a plan for using the new revenues to protect all under-funded safety net and other core programs is well beyond my expertise. So I’ll confine myself here to noting that nothing in federal policy suggests — let alone mandates — a TANF benefits cut at the end of five years.

States can set their own benefits levels wherever they choose. The federal government’s five-year lifetime limit sets the standard for the caseload that can be partially funded by the block grant. States may exempt up to 20% of their caseload from this limit without financial penalty based on “hardship or domestic violence.” They are also free to use their own funds for a higher percentage.

No exemption whatever in the benefits reduction section the Budget Support Act would add to the District’s public assistance law. Rather, a guarantee that families who, for a variety of reasons, haven’t become — or remained — fully self-sufficient will be plunged into even greater hardship than they are now.

Mayor Fenty tells us that “we cannot afford to ask [residents] to shoulder a bigger financial burden” in these “tough economic times.” I guess poor parents constrained to rely on TANF don’t count.


District Aims For A Better Winter Season For Homeless Families, But …

October 6, 2010

Here in D.C., another fall means it’s time for another winter plan, the document that spells out how the District intends to ensure that all residents have shelter during severe weather.

Once again, I’m chewing over the provisions for homeless families. And I’m not the only one.

The Operations & Logistics Committee, which develops the nuts and bolts of the plan for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, met again late last month to hash over a couple of last-minute changes advanced by the Department of Human Services. One of these was a major shift in the plan for homeless families.

Here’s how things seem to stand now.

The Operations & Logistics Committee figured that the District would need 31% more units for families than were available at the start of last winter’s season. That meant 215 additional units.

But according to a presentation at the last ICH meeting, the Committee assumed that 100 “beds” (the math indicates that means units) would be available at DC General on November 1.

The assumption reflected a goal put forward by DHS — 100 families moved out of DC General to more permanent housing by the end of October.

Why DHS and/or the Committee assumed that the units vacated would remain empty until the winter season begins isn’t clear to me. It’s not as if there aren’t families waiting to move in right now.

In any event, I gather the Committee didn’t feel altogether comfortable with the projection. So DHS agreed to add 100 overflow units at DC General, to be ready for occupancy on December 1. Then it changed its position.

What it plans to do instead is fast-track funding to place more families in permanent supportive housing, transitional housing and temporary housing units scattered around the city. Units identified in the plan total 180, bringing total capacity to what it would have been with the additional overflow units at DC General.

DHS told the Committee it had already moved 45 families out of DC General — 15 into PSH and the rest into housing temporarily subsidized with federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing funds.

If I’ve got the numbers right, this means it will have to find housing for an additional 55 families in the next couple of weeks. The DHS representatives at the meeting seemed confident they could do this.

DHS plans to line up an additional 80 units and have them ready for occupancy so that it can swiftly move some families out of DC General — or perhaps divert them from the shelter altogether — as the winter season progresses.

DHS argues that the funds required to renovate units at DC General would be better spent on more suitable, stable housing situations. Also more consistent with the five-year strategic plan ICH adopted in April.

No one, I think, would raise principled objections to this. Surely housing is a better option than emergency shelter units like those at DC General. The big question is whether the DHS housing initiative can keep pace with what’s likely to be a continuing high level of need.

I’m not thinking here only about families who will lose their housing — and others who will run out of money for motel rooms or wear out their welcome with friends and relatives.

What about the families whose housing is only temporarily subsidized? Will they be able to pick up the full cost of rent some months from now? Or will they be back where they started, in urgent need of shelter?

Well, that won’t happen till this winter’s over. Hard to tell whether DHS has thought so far ahead.

Members of the Operations & Logistics Committee voiced some reservations along these lines. Clarence Carter, head of DHS, responded, “When we have to do something else, we will do something else.”

But that was before Mayor Fenty directed the agency to cut its budget by about $11 million. And didn’t we hear reassuring words like these last year?

UPDATE: I’ve just learned that the Mayor’s order doesn’t actually cut agencies’ budgets. It puts certain categories of spending on hold and prevents spending commitments in other categories that could complicate upcoming decisions on budget cuts.

UPDATE II. This posting reflects some misunderstandings about the role of the Operations & Logistics Committee and its estimate of family shelter needs. A followup posting provides clarifications and some additional information based on the DC Council Committee on Human Services’ hearing on the plan.


The Morning After The Day Before In Washington, DC

September 15, 2010

Well, the District’s mayoral race is finally over. Thought it would never end.

So many rallies and what were billed as debates but turned out to be mainly speechifying and  mud-slinging.  A glut of news articles and campaign endorsements styled as news articles. (You know what paper I’m talking about.)

Knocks on doors from dutiful “volunteers.” Flyers through the mail slot and incessant robocalls.

Numerous voter guides, i.e., candidates’ responses to questions posed by diverse public interest organizations — or more often copy-paste from campaign materials. And who would blame those who sometimes decided to take a pass when there were so many?

And yet when I walked into the ballot booth, I still didn’t know what differentiated the candidates — except, of course, for personal style. I’m the last person to say that’s not important. But, in a way, I’d have welcomed a clearer choice on substantive policies and priorities.

Maybe differently-run campaigns would have surfaced clear, bright lines. More likely there weren’t any. And that, I think, is a good thing. Because it means we’re closer to being “one city” than the campaign coverage or ward-by-ward results would indicate.

True, there’s a deep economic fault that splits our community into haves and have-nots. There’s an aggrieved sense of neglect among the latter. There are still festering racial hostilities.

But, in general terms, we agree on what needs to get done. No Tea Party upsurge here.

So Vince Gray will face a lot of challenges. But I, for one, am glad that the choice was more on matters of style and judgment than radical policy differences. Because we’re going to face more difficult times and do need to pull together.


Fenty Raids TANF Funds To Shore Up Summer Youth Jobs Budget

August 1, 2010

Once again, the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program faces a budget shortfall. And, once again, Mayor Fenty has decided that the program shouldn’t have to adhere to the funding level set by the DC Council.

Two years ago, the administration spent about $40.5 million more than was originally budgeted. Last year, another cost overrun. And here we go again, but with a new twist.

The approved budget for this summer’s program is $22.7 million. The Council limited enrollment to 21,000 youth and capped the length at six weeks. The Department of Employment Services, which administers the program, has reportedly kept enrollment below the cap.

But, as the Washington Post reports, the Chief Financial Officer determined that the approved funding wouldn’t cover six full weeks of wages — perhaps because $10 million had to be spent on contractors to place as many youth as the Council was willing to allow. Not only that, but as DOES Director Joe Walsh testified last month, the administration wanted to extend the program to somewhat more than seven weeks.

So it was clearly in a bind. DOES could, of course, have cut back enrollment to eliminate the projected shortfall. It could have reduced participants’ work hours. The mayor could have gone back to the Council with a request for the additional funds needed to run the program he wanted.

Instead, he decided to reprogram $8.4 million that Clarence Carter, head of the Department of Human Services, had assured the Council would be used to bring total funding for homeless services up to the Fiscal Year 2009 level. Either that or the mayor is taking funds that are urgently needed to serve the very low-income families in the District’s TANF program.

At this point, we don’t know, though we may find out at a hearing the Housing and Workforce Development Committee has scheduled for tomorrow morning. But the mayor may think he doesn’t need to account for the supplement to the SYEP appropriation because, technically, the additional funds aren’t in the District’s budget.

They come from the District’s share of the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund — a pot of money Congress appropriated as part of the economic recovery act to help states cope with recession-related spending increases for TANF and/or short-term benefits to help families who would otherwise enroll in TANF.

The District had claimed $46 million. These funds weren’t in the proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hadn’t approved payment. Carter told the Council he was quite sure it would. And he was obviously right.

But because the funds weren’t in the budget, the mayor apparently feels free to use them for any of the broad purposes the Emergency Contingency Fund can cover, prior commitments and pressing needs notwithstanding.

An internal document prepared in April shows that DHS planned to use $8.1 million of the Emergency Contingency funds to make up the Fiscal Year 2010 homeless services shortfall and $15 million for the projected shortfall in Fiscal Year 2011. The remainder was to go to the TANF program itself — $7.9 million for cash assistance and the rest for improved job training and other initiatives.

The mayor claims that what he’s doing is altogether appropriate. “The Obama administration,” he says, “has made it a priority to use federal stimulus funds to put young people to work this summer.”

Perhaps he’s referring to the $1.2 billion that were in the economic recovery act for youth employment and training programs. Perhaps to the additional $1 billion that’s still pending in Congress.

What’s sure as can be is that neither the President nor any of his people ever suggested leaving homeless families out on the streets so that some kids can have summer-long subsidized jobs that could have gone to poor jobless parents.

UPDATE: At yesterday’s hearing, DOES Director Joe Walsh clarified the mayor’s reference to the Obama administration’s priority on subsidized summer jobs for youth. Several months ago, he said, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services sent a letter to state agencies encouraging them to address the high rate of youth unemployment.

They were encouraged to explore all funds available and provided guidance on how TANF funds could be used. The departments asked as many as possible to take advantage of potentials for partnering their Work Investment Act and TANF programs.

According to this account, the departments said nothing to suggest that summer jobs for youth should have a higher priority than providing shelter and other essential services for very low-income families, including meaningful job training for the parents.


Passel Of Trouble Over Parcel 42

July 14, 2010

Last Saturday, a group of District residents led by ONE DC set up a tent city on Parcel 42 — a vacant lot across from the Shaw/Howard University Metro station. This marked the latest phase in a prolonged effort to get more subsidized affordable housing developed in the neighborhood.

It’s a tangled tale and hard to piece together. But the Washington Business Journal gives a good recap through November 2007. ONE DC has its own account, which takes us up to the present. So here goes ….

Seems that the Fenty administration decided to bring Radio One back to the city and to create a home for it in a new complex on top of the Metro station. To this end, it agreed to provide $16 million in public financing –most of it as free rent for Radio One. (Thought you’d like to know where your taxpayer dollars were going.)

The original plan the mayor approved included 112 units of affordable housing, plus rental space, underground parking and a community center to be built on a separate lot — Parcel 42. (ONE DC, however, references a Community Benefits Agreement with the now-defunct National Capital Redevelopment Corporation that said Parcel 42 would be used for affordable housing.)

In any event, the plan evolved. Basically, it seems, the developers wanted to make more money on the housing. First it was condos. Then more rental housing at market rates.

Ultimately, only 45 of the 180 units planned were tagged as affordable. And they were to be affordable for households earning up to 60% of the area median income. This is a higher ceiling than what many analysts and advocates mean when they talk about affordable housing, though not higher than the standard used for some federal affordable housing programs.

ONE DC and neighborhood supporters protest. The administration and developers agree, as a trade-off for the higher-rent housing, to also put housing on Parcel 42. In short, they seem to buy into the prior Community Benefits Agreement.

ONE DC contends that the developer selected for the Parcel 42 project was to get a $7.8 million subsidy from the District in exchange for building 94 apartments affordable to individuals and families making less than $50,000. The rent structure was to make some affordable to those with incomes as low as 30% of the AMI. Near as I can figure, this would be considerably less than $50,000.

Then, says ONE DC, the mayor let the developer know that he had other ideas for the affordable housing subsidy. Rosemary Ndubuizu, spokesperson for ONE DC, tells me he wanted all units pegged to 60% of the AMI. The developer said it couldn’t do better because the subsidy had been cut by about $2.8 million.

ONE DC tries in vain to reopen negotiations. Ultimately, it stages a demonstration in front of the mayor’s house. Two days later it’s told that the mayor will increase the subsidy so that housing will be affordable for households making $50,000.

Two months ago, it finds out that the lead developer has been told to cut the housing back to 54 units and make the lowest-cost units affordable for people earning $70,000 a year. This is somewhat under 70% of the AMI for a family of four.

Needless to say, ONE DC and the neighborhood residents it’s organized feel stiffed. They’re demanding that the Fenty administration follow through on the agreed-upon subsidy and rent structure for Parcel 42.  They also have broader demands aimed at increasing the availability of affordable housing in the District.

There could well be another side to this story. But thus far the Fenty administration hasn’t offered it. Perhaps hoping that the protesters will fold their tents before the construction crews arrive. And they certainly will. But they won’t silently steal away.

They plan to cap the “liberating of the land” tomorrow, July 15, with an early morning “delegation” to the mayor’s office. What, if anything, will come of all this is an open question.


DC Summer Youth Employment Program Off To Rocky Start

June 30, 2010

Guess I should have waited for the opening day news before publishing my rose-colored glasses view of the prospects for this year’s summer jobs program.

The Washington Post and other news sources, including WUSA9.com, myfoxdc.com and Channel 8 News all report major problems with assignments.

Seems that some youth were sent to job sites that already had more workers than they could handle. Some were sent to a site where there were no jobs because the company didn’t have a contract with the Department of Employment Services.

Then there were some who needed transfers for health or safety reasons, e.g., a participant with asthma who was assigned to work at a public (chlorinated) swimming pool. At least one teen was assigned to summer school when she wasn’t supposed to go.

All told, somewhere between 700 and more than 800 youth wound up at Gallaudet University’s field house to get new assignments. Some reportedly stood in line for hours. Some were ultimately told to call at 6:00 a.m. the following day to find out what, if anything, the program had lined up for them.

One could expect some glitches in a program as large as the District’s. And some of the youth seeking reassignments simply wanted something closer to home — reasonable, but not necessarily something the program should be expected to deliver.

But no-matches and mismatches involving so many young people?

Joe Walsh, head of DOES, says that the program “is running 100 percent better than last year and 1,000 percent smoother than any years previous.” That well may be, given past administrative foul-ups.

To Walsh’s credit, some 20,000 youth were, as he says, “out there working all over the city.” And he recognizes there are still problems to resolve.

Mayor Fenty dismisses allegations of confusion. “There are over 22,000 kids in the program, he e-mailed Fox 5. “Some kids are being transferred to different assignments and other kinks may be getting ironed out. What’s the chaos?”

What’s this about over 22,000 kids? I thought the DC Council capped the program at 21,000. Could over-enrollment again have swamped the program’s capacity to get all participants working on day one?