One Hand Clapping for DC TANF Families

September 12, 2012

September 30 is a drop-dead date for some two million poor families nationwide, including about 17,600 in the District of Columbia. It’s also, for different reasons, a drop-dead date for more than a third of these D.C. families.

At the end of the month, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will expire, unless Congress extends it. Looks as if it will, though for only six months.

Here in the District, September 30 is the end of the fiscal year. The budget that kicks in on October 1 includes a benefits cut for the more than 6,100 families who’ve participated in TANF for more than a lifetime total of five years.

For some of them, it would be a second cut — 45% less than they’d originally received. A mother with two children would have to somehow get along on about $235 a month.

The budget the DC Council passed put a one-year hold on the cuts — as well it should have, since the Department of Human Services hasn’t finished the individual assessments that are supposed to link TANF parents to an appropriate mix of services.

But the hold was contingent on a future forecast that indicated considerably more revenues than the budget assumed.

Ditto for both the additional funds the Council allocated to TANF job training and a reprieve from the five-year time limit for TANF parents who face unusually serious barriers to work.

Well, the last revenue forecast was basically the same as the one before. And there are reasons to believe the next one will be also — if not worse.

Thanks to some smart, persistent advocacy, however, Mayor Gray has found some additional money for TANF in the current year’s budget — $11 million unspent for other programs.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute tells us that the found money will avert further benefits cuts for half the year, beef up the casework staff to get those assessments done and make it possible for 900 more TANF parents to get employment services.

All this assumes the Council will swiftly approve the Mayor’s proposal. Seems likely, given what it’s already passed.

That will surely be good news for TANF families facing imminent benefits cuts — and for many others, since the extra casework and job preparation funds will take DHS closer to delivering on the program improvements its redesign promises.

But we’ll face another crisis at the end of March because the benefits cuts will go forward again — unless more money is found to postpone them.

If all goes according to plan, DHS will just have finished all the individual assessments. Some parents will have, at most, a couple of months of relevant training before they’re punished for earlier program failures.

And what about the parents who are by no means ready to plunge into an education and/or job training plan that might, in the best of circumstances, move them from welfare to work?

The budget the Council passed included indefinite time-limit exemptions for them — not in TANF itself, but by transferring them to POWER (Program on Work Employment and Responsibility).

This too hinged on a higher revenue forecast. And the Mayor’s found money won’t plug the gap.

So the clock will keep ticking for parents who can’t prepare for work because they’re seriously ill, suffering from the trauma of domestic violence or caring for a sick or disabled family member.

All because the District, unlike a number of states, doesn’t exercise its right, under TANF rules, to exempt them from the five-year time limit till they’re ready to put in the required 30 hours a week on permissible work-related activities.

DCFPI says that the Mayor and Council would have to find an additional $5.8 million to keep benefits flowing to these parents and their children — and give another six-month reprieve to the other at-risk TANF families.

Hard to believe they couldn’t if they cared to. For this, they’ve got some time to look.

But I’m told the Council has to approve the proposal for the found money on September 19 because DHS will otherwise begin reprogramming its computers to effect the benefits cuts.

This then is, in one sense, the drop-dead date for some of the District’s poorest families.

Bits on Uphill Battles — and Downward Falls

August 13, 2012

Another scrapbook of fragments that didn’t get into posts I’ve written, plus some thoughts I had along the way.

Winning Battles, But Not the War

As I wrote about amendments that didn’t get into the Senate’s Farm Bill, I realized, again, what hard times we progressive advocates face.

Basically, we’re reduced to giving thanks — even to legislators themselves — because bills that affect low-income people aren’t as bad as they could have been.

We see this not only nationally, but here in the District of Columbia.

The Fair Budget Coalition, for example, proclaimed victories when high priorities, e.g., homeless services, a delay in further TANF benefits cuts, got into the list of things that will get funding if the Chief Financial Officer predicts more revenues — lots more — than the estimate the budget was built on.

Not faulting FBC  here, especially when the coalition — and others — averted some truly harmful cuts and got some money back in the Housing Production Trust Fund as well.

But I long for victories that actually move us forward.

Upward Mobility in Black and White

My recent post on the Pew Center’s economic mobility report alluded to its findings on blacks born to low-income parents. I’d wanted to include them, but the draft was already pushing against my somewhat indulgent word-count limit.

So here they are, plus some additional race gap facts.

  • The percent of blacks who grew up in the bottom fifth of the income scale is nearly six times greater than the percent of whites — 65% as compared to 11%.
  • More than half (53%) of blacks stay there, while only a third of whites do.
  • Well over half (56%) of blacks raised in the middle fifth fell down to the second or bottom fifth as adults. Less than a third (32%) of whites raised in the middle fell.

What about blacks in the top two fifths? The Pew analysts say the percent — even for both together — is too small to calculate mobility “with statistical certainty.”

Not, I think, surprising. What is to me is how much more slippery the middle rung on the ladder is for blacks.

Disparities in parental income, education and employment opportunities — all in part reflecting persistent race discrimination — can explain why it’s harder for blacks born at the bottom to climb the ladder.

But what accounts for the greater downward mobility — the reverse, if you will, of the American Dream?

Part of the answer apparently is that the median family income for blacks is lower than for whites in every fifth that can be reliability estimated. So even a relatively small income loss can drop them into the next fifth down.

But the plummet to the bottom fifth calls for more explanation than I can ferret out of the report.

Life Is Unfair, in Economese

Found this in a very wonky paper by economists Flavio Cunha and James Heckman: “The best documented market failure in the life cycle of skill formation … is the inability of children to buy their parents and the lifetime resources they provide.”

In other words, children born to parents who’ve got the education, temperament, time and money to invest in developing their cognitive and noncognitive skills, e.g., perseverance, self-control, aversion to risky behaviors, are more likely to become economically and socially successful than children who by “accident of birth” have parents who don’t.

We knew this, of course. And the Pew report indirectly confirms it. But whoever knew it was a defect in our free market system?

Put Child Care on the Map, Advocates Say

June 4, 2012

Wrapping up my post on child care costs, I remarked that we’d need a reordering of priorities in Congress to make affordable, high-quality child care available for poor and near-poor families nationwide.

Turns out that two major advocacy organizations — RESULTS and the National Women’s Law Center — have decided it’s time to put the pressure on.

We’ve had reports, expert testimony, news articles, blog posts, etc. But nothing gets attention like direct proofs of constituent interest.

So the organizations are asking all of us — well, all except us disenfranchised District of Columbia residents — to “put child care on the map.”

Specifically, they ask that everyone concerned about child care do one or more things while members of Congress are back in their home districts, as they will be for good parts of this summer and fall.

Then we’re to let the organizations know what we did so that they can put it on a Google map they’ve created.

Lots of options for putting child care on Congress members’ radar screens — many with helps like templates and meeting tips.

Also, at this early point, lots of vacant places on the map. But already fewer than when I first checked it.

The immediate occasion for this innovative campaign is the upcoming budget for the Child Care and Development Fund — the single largest source of federal support for subsidized child care.

The President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget would provide $825 million more for the Fund.

Most would go to the mandatory or entitlement part, which receives a set level of funding based on what Congress last authorized.

The increase would thus require Congress to change the authorizing language — presumably as part of a broader package that’s now overdue.

The remainder of the increase would go to the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which receives whatever Congress decides in any given year.

Most, if not all of the $325 million for the block grant would give states extra money to improve child care quality. The additional $500 million for the mandatory part would help fund subsidized child care, but only in states willing to match the extra they could receive.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that the increase would support 70,000 children who otherwise wouldn’t be served. This does not mean that more children than ever would receive subsidized child care, however.

The estimated number of children who would be served is about 200,000 less than in 2010, when states still had Recovery Act funds for child care.

Well, the President proposes and Congress disposes. Hence the need to put child care on the map.

Last year, the House Republican majority voted to cut the Child Care and Development Block Grant by $39 million. They ultimately agreed to a package that increased its funding — a notable turnaround, especially because Senate appropriators had earlier decided on level funding.

This is surely proof that actions like those RESULTS and NWLC urge us to take can make a difference, even in these … how shall I put it? … unfriendly times.

DC Council Improves Mayor’s Budget, But Not for TANF Families

May 17, 2012

Much celebrating in the local advocacy community. Much back-patting in the DC Council. Face-saving endorsement by Mayor Gray.

All this occasioned by the Council’s unanimous approval of a Fiscal Year 2013 budget for the District. And there are good reasons for the high-fives.

Among them, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports:

  • Projected savings and revenues that will preserve hospital-based health services for approximately 19,000 low-income residents insured by the DC HealthCare Alliance.
  • An infusion of $18 million into the Housing Production Trust Fund — basically, a replacement of funds that were shifted out this fiscal year.
  • An additional $4 million for the Local Rent Supplement Program, earmarked to provide stable housing for 200-300 currently homeless families. This will free up space to shelter some of those the Department of Human Services has been turning away.

These are large achievements. And as Councilmember Michael Brown observed, they reflect “great work by the advocacy community in this city,” which focused much of its energy — grassroots especially — on the affordable housing initiatives.

But it’s surely not the case, as the Mayor says, that the budget “protect[s] our most vulnerable residents.”

Nor, as Councilmember Marion Barry asserted during the pre-vote discussion, that it shows “sensitivity to TANF recipients.” Because they, in fact, got left under the bus.

As I earlier wrote, Mayor Gray’s budget assumed more than $5.6 million in savings from further benefits cuts to the 6,100 or so families that have participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months.

Only Councilmember Jim Graham tried to avert the cuts, though all but one member of the Human Services Committee had voted for the TANF Time Limit Amendment Act.

This bill would, among other things, protect long-term participants from further cuts until they’ve been properly assessed and had a chance to benefit from an appropriate mix of programs and services, as the TANF redesign plan envisions.

When Graham tried to fold it into the Budget Support Act — the package of legislation that’s paired to the budget proper — Council Chairman Brown said he couldn’t because the proposal wasn’t paid for.

In other words, no additional savings or revenues had been identified to keep the budget balanced if the amendment became law. And indeed, they hadn’t.

This speaks volumes about priorities and Brown’s cat-herding skills as well.

We are, after all, going to spend $3 million for a bang-up DC Emancipation Day celebration, which Councilmember Vince Orange asked for. Also some unidentified sum for a dog park in Ward 4.

Graham and Brown will supposedly look for the money to fund the time limit amendment before the Council takes the required second vote on the BSA next month.

Let’s not hold our breath. Nor take comfort in the fact that $14.7 million for TANF is second on the Council’s contingency revenue list, i.e., its priorities for spending any Fiscal Year 2013 revenues higher than those projected.

The additional money for TANF — the source of Councilmember Barry’s enthusiasm — is needed to make the TANF redesign a reality, though DCFPI says it wouldn’t be enough to cover employment services for all parents who should receive them.

Not a penny would go to preserving benefits.

So, with or without the wish-list revenues, TANF program improvements won’t go forward as planned.

And participants will still get punished because the program didn’t do what it should have to help them achieve greater self-sufficiency — or exempt those who weren’t ready, as federal rules allow.

Well, politics is the art of the possible. And the Council deserves credit for producing a budget balanced much less on the backs of the poor than the one the Mayor sent over.

But is it a budget that, as Chairman Brown claimed, shows that the Council is “putting people first?” Depends, I guess, on who people are.

DC Fails Homelessness Test

May 2, 2012

Speak for We blogger Michael Dahl recaps a bit of his experience as a long-time advocate for better homelessness and affordable housing policies in Minnesota.

Over the years, he says, homelessness advocates have given top priority to diverse strategies — prevention, supportive housing, rapid re-housing, etc.

He sees a consistent thread in three elements. They aren’t actually common elements in the strategies, however. They’re questions that policymakers and other stakeholders should ask when they decide what their community needs by way of a homelessness system.

They’re painfully apt here in the District of Columbia as the DC Council considers the Mayor’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

So here they are (with some minor edits):

  • Do we have enough affordable housing?
  • Do we have jobs in the community that pay for housing here?
  • Do the supports that we rely on when we fall on hard times, e.g., a job loss, poor health, work for our lowest income residents?

These components, Dahl says, “provide stability and a pretty sturdy safety net.” If they’re all in place, the number of homeless people will be small, and the time they spend homeless will usually be short.

If they’re not in place, then “you need a homeless system to pick up the slack.”

Well, the District surely doesn’t have enough affordable housing.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute took a close look at the situation two years ago. It found that the market had lost 23,700 low-cost rental units between 2000 and 2007 — more than a third of the stock.

Two in every five households were spending more for housing than they could afford, based on the standard 30% of income. Nearly three in five of poor and near-poor households paid at least half their income for a roof over their heads.

We’ve good reasons to believe that the situation has gotten worse. Rental costs have risen. More affordable units have been converted to upscale rentals or condos. More may have fallen into such disrepair as to be uninhabitable — victims of a combination of forces, including the recession.

The Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main tool for supporting affordable housing development and preservation — suffered losses when property sales slowed and prices dropped.

Then the Fund was raided to shore up the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s locally-funded voucher program. And now the Mayor proposes another raid, leaving the Fund with enough to support only 170 new units next year.

This second fund shift to LRSP would cover the projected costs of all existing vouchers, but no additional vouchers for people who are homeless — or may become homeless in months to come.

Whether the District will be able to renew all federally-funded vouchers is anybody’s guess.

The District does have jobs that pay for local housing, but not nearly all residents have them.

The local unemployment rate seems stuck at 9.8% — and that’s only residents who are actively looking for work. The latest rates for Wards 7 and 8 are 16.3% and 24.3%.

The average income of the poorest fifth of D.C. households was just $9,100 in 2010 — about $4,770 less than the annual rental cost of a modest efficiency unit then.

Even if the District prepares more residents for living wage jobs — and cracks down on enforcement of its living wage law — housing will remain unaffordable for a substantial number of workers.

At the current living wage rate, they’d have to pay more than half their income for rent on that efficiency, assuming they work full-time, year round.

Our safety net is far from sturdy for our lowest income residents.

They can get health care through Medicaid or the DC HealthCare Alliance, though those in the latter might lose essential services if the Council goes along with the Mayor’s savings plan.

Unemployment benefits are available for some, though far from all residents who lose their jobs. But they’ll be cut off sooner due to changes in federal law.

For families with children, we have the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. But cash benefits are way too low to cover the cost of unsubsidized housing. The maximum cash benefit for a family of three — currently $428 a month — is less than 37% of what the efficiency unit costs.

This is true, however, only for a family that’s been in the program for less than 60 months. For a family that’s been in longer, the benefit is only $257 a month. And the Mayor’s proposed budget would reinstate further cuts that the Council wisely deferred last year.

So it would seem that we truly do need a robust homeless services program. Under the Mayor’s budget, it would have $7 million less than last year.

And it already lacks funds to provide homeless families with shelter or other housing now that the winter season is officially over.

In short, the District fails Dahl’s test on both counts. Not enough stability or safety net support. Not enough in homeless services to pick up the slack either.

DC Mayor’s Budget Would Punish TANF Families for Program’s Failures

April 29, 2012

How would you like to try living on $275 a month — and in the District of Columbia no less? Inconceivable for a single person. What then for a single mother with two kids?

Under Mayor Gray’s proposed budget, more than 6,100 families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will lose a fifth of their meager cash benefits come October — this on top of the same sized-cut imposed last April.

The figure I led off with is what a family of three would be left with. Additional benefits cuts would follow until the family got nothing at all.

More than 11,000 children under thirteen would be plunged into even deeper poverty. Some of them, as the Children’s Law Center warns, would be put into foster care simply because their parents couldn’t afford adequate housing.

The families who’ll suffer are those who’ve spent 60 months or more in the program — not necessarily consecutive.

In many cases, the affected parents haven’t gotten the services they need to overcome severe work barriers, e.g., mental and physical health problems, domestic violence trauma, minimal or no marketable job skills.

Some were expected to engage in what passed for work preparation activities — sessions on workplace behavior, writing a resume, interviewing, etc.

Then, as one participant said, “[t]hey have you on the computer all day,” searching the online listings and pressured to take the first job offered.

Many have cycled back into the program because they didn’t have the skills for the jobs they’d found — or hadn’t gotten the help they needed to overcome other barriers. Others, I suppose, returned when they lost their jobs due to the recession.

Not all the parents whose benefits will be cut were required to engage in work activities for their whole term in the program. Some were excused for awhile because their barriers made work activities wholly unrealistic. But the time off is being counted toward their 60-month maximum anyway.

What’s happening here is that part of the Department of Human Services’ TANF redesign is barreling ahead — the part that gives parents a stronger incentive to engage in required work preparation and work search activities.

Nothing like facing a penniless future to get one moving — unless, of course, one’s too ill, disabled or occupied with other responsibilities, e.g., caring for a severely disabled child, to move on the work front, even knowing the hardships awaiting.

The administration could exempt up to 20% of such “hardship cases” from the 60-month limit and still use federal funds for a share of their cash benefits. But it’s chosen not to.

The other part of the TANF reform — in-depth individual assessments to identify their individual strengths and needs — is lagging behind. Thus also appropriate agreements on what they should do to fulfill their responsibilities for striving toward self-sufficiency.

As of late February, DHS had completed only 12% of the assessments needed for families at immediate risk of cash benefit loss.

At the reported rate of 150 assessments a week, it won’t get through them all until months after the next 20% cut kicks in.

It might if the rate applied only to parents subject to the phase-out rather than to all parents who show up when they’re told to. Some at immediate risk haven’t heard, don’t understand or perhaps figure it’s futile because they’re going to lose their benefit anyway.

Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown have introduced a bill that would temporarily stave off the benefits cuts and mandate reasonable time-limit exemptions, such as many states provide.

Advocates have suggested ways the bill could be strengthened, including a longer reprieve period. But it’s a whole lot better than what’s coming down the pike.

Why didn’t Mayor Gray fold a version into his proposed budget? Surely he knows that TANF families will lose benefits because the program failed them.

For the same reason he put the benefits phase-out into last year’s proposed budget. Savings to help close the budget gap. This year he expects to save more than $5.6 million.

Well, the DC Council could do what the Mayor wouldn’t. The Human Services Committee took a step in this direction last week with a vote (4-1) in favor of the Graham-Brown bill

Now comes the need to find funds to substitute for the Mayor’s proposed savings — and to get at least three more Councilmembers on board.

Maybe we should launch a TANF Challenge along the lines of the popular Food Stamp Challenges.

Who knows what might happen if our elected representatives had to try living on $275 for a month?

House Agriculture Committee Slashes Food Stamp Program

April 22, 2012

You can’t have both guns and butter. House Republicans have taken this old piece of federal budget wisdom seriously. They’ve opted for guns — not over butter, but over food assistance for poor people.

The guns at issue here are funds for defense. Sequestration, i.e., the annual across-the-board cuts required by the Budget Control Act, would reduce them by $54.7 billion a year.

Nobody in a position of power wants those cuts, including the President.

His proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget would hit the total deficit reduction targets in the BCA by a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. It would also, as the BCA does, protect certain key programs for low-income people, including food stamps.

House Republicans will have none of this. Their budget plan, among other things, charged six committees to come up with more non-defense savings — enough to hit the deficit reduction targets, but without touching defense.

The House Agriculture Committee had to save $33.2 billion over the next 10 years, beginning with $8.2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year.

It could have gone after the costly subsidies our government pays to farmers — actually, for the most part, large farming operations.

Some of these provide special benefits for producing certain crops, e.g., yearly payments (even if the farmer grows nothing), compensation to make up for lower market prices. Another subsidizes insurance against crop losses. Yet farmers also get compensated when droughts, frosts, etc. ruin their crops.

All told, these subsidies cost some $25 billion a year. Nice safety net, huh?

The House budget plan itself identifies some of these subsidies for “reforms.” But they’re for another day.

So the Agriculture Committee, heeding “assumptions” made by the Budget Committee found its mandated savings — all of them and more — in the food stamp program.

First, it would shave months off the expiring boost in benefits that was part of the Recovery Act. They’re now scheduled to end in November 2013 — thanks to earlier cutbacks Congress made to offset the costs of other measures.

Under the House Agriculture plan, the boost would end two months from now. For a family of four, this would mean $57 less per month, according to a new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The bulk of the savings, however, would come from two changes in the food stamp law itself.

One of them would, in effect, require households to be poorer to qualify for food stamps.

Under current law, a household can generally have no more than $2,000 in assets — or $3,250 if any of its members is a senior or a person with a disability. Total household income must be no greater than 130% of the applicable federal poverty line.

But most states — and the District of Columbia — have used an option in the law to eliminate the asset test. They’ve expanded their definition of “categorical eligibility,” i.e., types of low-income households that automatically qualify for food stamps.

This not only allows low-income families to conserve what they can for unexpected expenses. It also lets states raise the income eligiibilty threshold up to 200% of the federal poverty line — the level that many analysts use for classifying the low-income population.

The House Agriculture Committee would put a stop to this. Only households in which all members receive cash assistance could be deemed categorically eligible.

No more categorical eligibility for those that receive other types of publicly-funded support for low-income people, e.g., child care subsidies, job training.

Nor for households where only the children receive cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or as Supplemental Security Income.

At least two million people — perhaps as many as three million –would be forced out of the program. More than 280,000 children would lose not only food stamp benefits, but free school meals.

The other change in existing law would permanently reduce the benefits some households receive — again by severely limiting an option a growing number of states now use.

Briefly, the complicated formula states must ordinarily use to calculate food stamp eligibility and benefits levels includes an income allowance for utility costs, based on those applicants actually have to pay for.

But if the family receives benefits from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, it automatically qualifies for the maximum allowance.

Fourteen states — and the District — have given families in the food stamp program a small LIHEAP benefit. Some of the families get higher food stamp benefits as a result. No big windfall here, however.

The House Agriculture Committee would virtually eliminate the so-called “heat and eat” option — or so I infer, since it expects to save $14 billion.

All this would be in addition to, not instead of the $133.5 billion House Republicans intend to save by converting the food stamp program to a block grant.

Moral of this story: Some people’s safety nets are worthier than others.