DC Council Finds Funds For TANF, But Poor Families Will Still Be Homeless

June 2, 2011

So DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown has managed to find $4.9 million for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

This will be used to temporarily halt the phase-out of cash benefits for families who’ve been in the program for more than five years. And a good thing too.

As a number of fellow bloggers have commented, it’s grossly unfair to penalize families for the program’s failures to provide suitable job training and other needed services.

Outrageously unfair to punish children because their parents haven’t been able to find sustained living wage work in our high-skill, recession-battered economy.

Also, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has argued, counterproductive because children who live in poverty are less likely to learn what our public schools aim to teach them. Push more of them into even deeper poverty and you set the stage for another generation of poor parents raising poor children.

On the other hand, the TANF program needs more than protection of current cash benefits. It needs enough funding to boost them.

They’ve remained flat for three years, which means they’ve lost value due to inflation. At this point, a family of three can get, at most, enough to put it somewhat below 28% of the very low federal poverty line.

Here’s one indicator of the results. According to the recently-released final figures from the District’s 2011 homeless count, 83% of literally homeless adults in families had some regular income. And the most common primary source was none other than TANF.

The Council, to its credit, put $17 million more into homeless services, thus making up for most of the shortfall. So at least those TANF families should be able to count on shelter this winter.

It also rejected, in principle, Mayor Gray’s plans to gut affordable housing programs.

As DCFPI reports, the Council’s version of the Budget Support Act, i.e., the legislation needed to implement the budget, allocates a portion of the additional revenues it hopes the Chief Financial Officer will project to restoring the $18 million shifted out of the Housing Production Trust Fund.

An additional $1.6 million of the hoped-for revenues would be used to preserve all affordable units subsidized with Local Rent Supplement Program funds for the homeless individuals and families sponsors intended to house.

The mayor’s proposed budget co-opted 175 of them to house people in the permanent supportive housing program. If all goes well, they’ll be housed without foreclosing opportunities for others.

But the first $22 million of new-found revenues will go to moving remaining expenses parked in the capital budget into the operating budget, where they belong.

Half of the remainder will be used to build up funds reserved for future contingencies. And the first $10.8 million of the rest will fund additional police force positions.

If my back-of-the-envelope calculations are right, the upcoming CFO projection will have to show more than $100 million more in expected revenues for both homeless services and affordable housing to be brought up to current funding levels.

Whatever the projection, the Council can still change its mind.

Council Chairman Brown and some of his colleagues reportedly still want to use some $13 million of the found funds to replace the just-passed tax on interest earned from out-of-state bonds.

This now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach to balancing the budget was in Brown’s version of the BSA. A bare majority of Councilmembers passed an amendment to block it.

But neither the amendment nor any other part of the BSA will be final until the Council votes again on June 14.

The Save Our Safety Net coalition suggests we stiffen the backbones of Councilmembers who voted for the bond tax amendment and try to move others into their camp.

A one-vote margin is never comfortable, especially when it includes at least one Councilmember who, let’s just say, has proved remarkably unpredictable.


DC Council Looks To New Revenue Estimate As Answer To Conflicting Priorities

May 18, 2011

Monday’s DC Council budget discussion answered my question about where the money’s going to come from to restore cuts Councilmembers don’t like while also rejecting revenue raisers they really, really don’t like.

Or rather, it answered the question of where Councilmembers think it will come from. They’re banking on the next revenue estimate from the Chief Financial Officers.

Council Chairman Kwame Brown says the estimate will show at least $20 million — maybe as much as $60 million — more than the estimate the Gray administration used for the proposed budget.

Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs the Finance Committee, says it could be as much as $90 million more.

But the Council’s apparently not going to use much of the found money to restore the deep cuts the mayor’s budget makes in affordable housing or key safety net programs.

Council Chairman Brown’s plan would allocate just 25% for the entire range of programs that “assist District residents in need.” Assuming his hopeful $60 million projection, that could still mean cuts totaling at least $116 million.

So it seems that homeless families may get year-round shelter. But judging from the discussion, homeless individuals will still be on the streets, except during the winter season.

Families that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program hasn’t helped to achieve self-sufficiency will probably, as one Councilmember remarked, be punished for the program’s failures.

Low-income individuals with severe disabilities will be on their own for the many, many months they wait to get approval for Supplemental Security Income.

Under the Chairman’s plan, another 25% of the additional revenues would go to investments in the District. Given the cryptic description and the heated discussion, a portion could, in effect, substitute for revenue raisers that some Councilmembers find gravely offensive.

At least four take out after the notion that the residential parking fee for a second car would go up to $50. How, Councilmember Evans asks, can his family get along without two cars when he and his wife have six kids?

And, as Greater Greater Washington reports, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Muriel Bowser join him in arguing for a rollback in current downtown parking rates — though Cheh half-retracts later.

But I’m guessing that top priority will be given to building up the police force. Councilmembers spent at least twice as much time on how much bigger it should be than on the impacts of the cuts to safety net programs.

What about the remaining 50% of the future found money? Brown’s plan would allocate it to replenishing the general fund reserve balance.

Note that the Council has already passed legislation to do this, using funds agencies haven’t designated for spending by the end of each fiscal year.

Very different from creaming off revenues that are urgently needed to shore up core programs for the fiscal year ahead. And besides, tweets the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the fund reserve has got at least $890 million now.

In any event, Councilmembers are counting chickens that haven’t been hatched. They’re scheduled to vote on the Budget Request Act (the actual budget for next fiscal year) and the Budget Support Act (the legislation needed to implement it) on May 25.

If past is prologue, the revised revenue estimate won’t be issued until some time after the Council must cast its second and final vote on the BSA.

And it must vote for a budget that’s balanced on the basis of the latest revenue estimate. So the best it can do is write into the BSA how any additional revenues that materialize will be used.

Will it use this option to kick the hard, divisive decisions into the future? Guess we’ll find out next Wednesday.

UPDATE: After I posted this, DCFPI published its own posting on the next revenue forecast and Council Chairman Brown’s plan to commit half of any additional revenues to building up the fund balance. It says the balance is expected to be $690 million by the end of this fiscal year.

UPDATE #2: I just saw the complete set of PowerPoints distributed to Councilmembers. It shows that the second vote on the BSA will be June 14 — later than the schedule I used to predict that the vote would occur before the Council get the next revenue estimate.


Let’s Put Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

May 17, 2011

We profess to care about the well-being of children — the most helpless and vulnerable, the future of our community, the hope of our nation, etc. We profess to care about small businesses. We profess to care a whole lot about helping low-income families become self-sufficient.

But what do we do when it comes to investing in a program that’s key to all three? We short-change it. I’m talking, of course, about subsidized child care.

Talking about it now because Mayor Gray’s budget proposes $2.2 million less in local spending on child care subsidies.

The Office of the State Superintendent for Education says the “adjustment” reflects the current expenditure rate. It’s been decreasing in recent years “in part because of the increase in quality of Pre-Kindergarten 3 and 4 year old slots in District Public Schools and Community-Based Organizations.”

This, I take it, is a roundabout way of saying that more parents are choosing to send their kids to the pre-K programs in our public schools. And a way of not saying that the current expenditure rate still leaves thousands of parents without affordable child care.

OSSE is thus offering basically the same justification as it did last year, when former Mayor Fenty proposed a larger child care subsidy cut.

And the objections, I think, are basically the same — though what I’ve learned since allows me to flesh them out somewhat.

First, however great they are, the preschool and pre-K programs offered by the District’s public and charter schools don’t admit children under the age of three.

That leaves lots of parents with infants and toddlers no alternative but community-based child care centers and in-home providers — assuming, of course, that they want or need to go on working or fulfilling other obligations, e.g., complying with the work requirements of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Same is true for some parents with three and four year olds. DC Action for Children’s blog reports that DCPS has some 1,400 children on waiting lists for pre-K slots.

Since I last wrote about child care, OSSE released the results of a more current survey of local providers, including comparisons between market rates and the rates at which OSSE reimburses those with subsidy contracts.*

Its waiting list figures are somewhat lower than OSSE’s less current ward-by-ward reports. But the details it adds are more important than the differences.

Notably, 72.8% of children on provider waiting lists last year were under four. And there were barely more of these children enrolled than wait-listed — 7,568, as compared to 7,381.

The survey report authors say, as they did in 2008, that “there appears to be a mismatch between slots needed and/or desired and current supply.” Mild understatement here.

And again, part of the explanation seems to be the gap between child care market rates and the reimbursements OSSE provides.

For contract centers, which account for the vast majority of subsidized slots, the annualized reimbursement rate for infants was nearly $4,000 less than the market rate. Point spreads for children ages one through three were all over $3,000 — nearly $3,770 for one year olds.

Not surprising then that large majorities of contract centers reported difficulty making ends meet — as, for the most part, did contract family home providers. Nor surprising that both recommended increasing reimbursement rates more often to keep up with rising operating costs.

In short, there’s no doubt that OSSE has been spending less. But that’s no reason to make another cut in child care subsidy funding.

* I’ve been told that the rates shown in the report don’t include the relatively small co-pays that contract providers may charge all but the poorest parents with vouchers. So the total per child amounts the providers receive are generally somewhat higher than shown.


If Not Tax Increases, What?

May 14, 2011

Spent a good part of last Monday watching the DC Council hearing on Mayor Gray’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget. None of the six Councilmembers participating was ready to go along with all the proposed revenue raisers that would help close the $322 million budget gap.

Much has already been written about the split over the proposed income tax increase. What was news, at least to me, was that even Councilmembers in favor of that balk at extending the sales tax to live performances.

Bad for the cultural vitality that makes the District an attractive place to live.

So there goes an estimated $2.3 million — not much, but it has to be made up somewhere.

Then there’s the matter of $22 million or so that the mayor’s budget would shift from two special accounts established to fund neighborhood development projects. “Not fair,” says Councilmember Jack Evans. “Disingenuous,” in fact.

And the matter of the large funding reduction for homeless services. Council Chairman Kwame Brown repeatedly expresses concerns about impending shelter closures.

Says he intends to look for a way to restore the lost funds. That’s at least $7.1 million, since he seems committed to sheltering only homeless families and victims of domestic violence.

Also to addressing the perceived need for more police officers. Another $10 million there.

So where are these millions going to come from?

Not from an income tax increase, it seems. Council Chairman Brown and participating colleagues Bowser, Evans and Catania all reiterate adamant opposition.

Brown since has said he’ll accept the deduction limit, but not the rate increase, which accounts for the larger share of the $35.4 million the mayor’s proposal would raise. Questionable whether he can corral a majority for this.

Catania rails against “the tired old notion of tax increases” — apparently referring to the idea that high-income residents should pay higher rates.

Seems he’s again holding out the possibility that he’d support a uniform across-the-board rate increase. “Whether people can afford to contribute” is something he “doesn’t care about.”

But this is merely a rhetorical flourish. He repeatedly insists that spending cuts versus tax increases is a “false either/or.”

When he became chairman of the Health Committee, he reviewed every item the departments the committee oversees spent money on. Found a lot of excess expenditures. Would that other committee chairs had done the same.

The answer, Catania says, is to go after our “gout-ridden government” — shrink “the bureaucracy that continues to feed itself.” This apparently would not qualify as a spending cut.

We heard a less florid version of the same from witness Barbara Lang, President and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. She, on behalf of members, objects to all tax increases. Also wants the funds cut from small business technical assistance restored.

The local government, she says, isn’t operating efficiently. Implies that eliminating unnecessary and redundant functions would allow the government to deliver all essential services without raising either taxes or fees.

Now, I’m the last one to say that the District government — or any government for that matter — is as efficient as it could be. Surely some functions are duplicative, unnecessary or of such low priority that they could, in theory, be eliminated.

But let’s get real. Virtually every function — indeed, every significant expenditure — has supporters that would make meaningful reductions politically difficult. Recall, for example, what happened when former Mayor Fenty tried to fold the Office on Asian and Pacific Affairs into a larger unit.

More importantly, the Gray administration and the Council would have to find — and agree on — some $127 million in “efficiencies” in order to balance the budget with no tax increases or yet deeper cuts in core services.

Also somehow to accommodate the cost impacts of a large increase in unemployed residents — not only government employees, but those employed by contractors and the many local retailers that would come up short on revenues.

And they’d have to do it before May 24, when the Council is scheduled to vote on the budget.

All this efficiencies business is just a distraction from the very real choice between adopting even more significant revenue raisers than the mayor has proposed or creating even greater hardships for low-income District residents.

NOTE: Just as I was finishing up this posting, Councilmember Evans marked up the Finance Committee’s share of the proposed budget. Under his leadership, the committee majority rejected virtually all the revenue raisers. This reportedly leaves the budget shy nearly $119.5 million.

Like Catania, Evans claims that revenue raisers versus deep cuts in social services is a “false choice.” No hint as to what the real choice is.