New DC TANF Sanctions Policy Not As Bad As It Could Have Been, But …

February 14, 2013

A friend of mine asked what I thought of the DC Council’s approval of a new sanctions policy for our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

She wished I’d blog on it. So here’s the (belated) answer, with some background for those who haven’t been following the twists and turns.

How We Got to This Point

Federal law requires states and the District to impose sanctions when a parent refuses, without “good cause,” to comply with her work activity requirements or cooperate with efforts to collect child support.

The District’s sanctions policy eliminated the portion of the benefit allocated to the parent until she complied. This is the minimum the federal law allows.

At the end of his term as Council Chairman, Mayor-elect Gray pushed through a big legislative package that, among other things, directed him, in his new role, to develop a tougher sanctions policy.

The final version provided no further direction — except a date certain — and was thus generally understood to authorize full family sanctions.

In other words, the policy could include total benefits cut-offs when parents repeatedly didn’t comply with their Individual Responsibility Plans — the specific activities they’re to perform (and the hours they’re to commit) in order to prepare for and/or seek paying work.

Time passes. The Department of Human Services develops a proposed sanctions rule. Gets recommendations for substantial changes. And to its credit, goes back to the drawing board — not once, but twice.

What the Council Considered

What the Mayor finally asked the Council to approve was still extraordinarily punitive.

Basically, a parent who had been earlier sanctioned with two successively severe benefits cuts would have lost all her benefits for at least a month — not only cash assistance for herself and her children, but her child care subsidy and any services she’d been receiving.

Then she’d have had to reapply for TANF and go through the assessment and IRP development process all over again — this before she and her children could get any benefits.

Next time DHS found her out of compliance, she and her children would have lost all their benefits for at least three months.

Again, she’d have had to reapply. But in the meantime, she’d have had to fully and consistently comply with her IRP for at least four consecutive weeks.

In other words, she’d have been doing everything she was supposed to do, but getting no relief from the extreme hardship the sanction imposed.

What the Council Passed

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, the Council threw out the fourth-level sanction.

It also meant to throw out the third-level reapplication requirement, but will have to rely on DHS to reflect this in the final rule because no one noted the omission until after the final vote.

DCFPI thanks the Council for passing “a balanced sanctions policy” — understandably, since it worked hard to get the worst of the bad out, including a six-month minimum for the fourth-level sanction.

But I wish the Council had rejected full family sanctions altogether. And I think the Institute does too, since it first summarizes objections that it and other advocates had raised.

Concerns About Full Family Sanctions

The term “full family” is telling here. Because the sanction cuts off benefits intended for the children, as well as the purportedly delinquent parent, though they, of course, have done nothing wrong.

Well, says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson — one of the two Councilmembers to vote against the modified sanctions policy — “the sanctions are so … [TANF parents] become able, get jobs.”

I’m willing to concede that some parents might shrug off their assigned responsibilities if the cash just kept flowing anyway — especially if those responsibilities failed to prepare them for reasonably good-paying jobs, as has certainly been the case in the past.

In fact, one might argue, as a Government Accounting Office report suggests, that sanctions themselves are a form of job preparation. We all know what happens if you don’t do the work you’re assigned — or often don’t show up at all without asking for leave.

Yet studies of sanctioned parents strongly suggest that many of them have such severe barriers to work that they’re unable to comply with work activity requirements.

They have physical and/or mental health problems, for example. Also problems with alcohol and drug abuse.

They’ve recently experienced domestic violence. They have to care for a child with a disability or chronic illness, which can often mean problems finding suitable child care and unpredictable rush trips to a doctor or hospital.

Some have such “low cognitive functioning” that they can’t read simple words or tell time — thus are unable to use public transportation to get to their assigned activity sites or know when they ought to try to.

More, I would suppose, who can’t fully comprehend their IRPs and related procedures.

Finally, such research as we have doesn’t show that full family sanctions work better than partial sanctions.

The former do, however, generally boost the percent of parents in the caseload who are meeting their work activity requirements — as we should expect, since those subject to full family sanctions don’t count as part of the caseload.

This is one reason states have found full family sanctions so attractive. They’re a ready way to avoid the sanctions states themselves are subject to if they don’t achieve the participation rate the federal law requires. A scathing Legal Momentum report documents the consequences.

The District’s new sanctions policy seems to put strong due process procedures in place — though they may not protect the most vulnerable families, as the Children’s Law Center has explained.

Much depends on whether DHS — and the boss it reports to — want to restrict sanctions to demonstrable cases of willful noncompliance or achieve other objectives.

We’ll need good monitoring here — and records to make that possible. An ample supply of free legal assistance too.

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A Sad TANF Story That Should Never Have Happened

July 18, 2011

I got a call from someone who follows this blog — a homeless mother who lives in Rockville, Maryland. She hoped I could advise her.

I couldn’t, but I’d like to tell her story because it speaks to a couple of policy issues that ought to be high on the agenda — here in the District of Columbia and nationwide.

For reasons I hope are obvious, I’m not going to use my caller’s name. Let’s just call here N.

She’s working, but earning only $8.00 an hour. Absent father pays no child support. So she and her kids depend in part on the cash benefits they get from Maryland’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The program is about to impose full family sanctions, i.e., to cut off their benefits entirely. This, it seems, on the recommendation of the contractor that delivers the program’s job-related services.

N said that partial sanctions were first applied when a caseworker who was fired didn’t tell his successor she’d been working. Another round of partial sanctions when the new caseworker failed to submit a routine report verifying that she had been.

Both times she was told not to worry. Everything would be fine. But the caseworker then said she hadn’t applied for a particular job, as instructed. N said she had and provided such proof as she could.

But the caseworker either wouldn’t or couldn’t reverse the full family sanctions decision. So N appealed. Appeal denied, which is hardly surprising since she was up against a large multi-state job services contractor and an agency equally committed to defending itself.

This is a fine illustration of what can happen when a state adopts a full family sanctions policy. All but five have one now. And the District is about to join them.

On the one hand, states — and the District — have strong incentives to impose full family sanctions. Legal Momentum cites several in federal policy. I’d add plain old budget constraints.

On the other hand, those same budget constraints can mean little or no oversight of the operations that state agencies contract out. Note how N’s caseworkers papered over the lapses — and impacts — of the partial sanctions.

But even the best system won’t prevent misunderstandings and mistakes. That’s why TANF programs should include a pre-sanctions conciliation process.

If the objective is truly to bring participants into compliance, then why rush to sanction when there could be remedies that wouldn’t leave them and their children without enough money to live on?

It’s also why strong due process protections are so important. If all else fails, TANF participants deserve advance notice of what they’re accused of and the sanction awaiting them — and in a form they can understand. They deserve an impartial hearing that lets them tell their side of the story.

That said, TANF participants are likely to be at a disadvantage when it comes to formal hearings and the like. So, I think, would most of us be.

Which brings me to another policy issue.

N’s story shows why we need well-funded legal services programs to advise and represent low-income people when they have to deal with the powers-that-be, including complex and often unfriendly bureaucracies.

As I’ve written before, nonprofit legal services programs have been struggling with a funding crunch for some time now.

Part of the problem is that Congress has consistently under-funded the Legal Services Corporation, which provides grants to somewhat over a third of the country’s 500 or so nonprofit legal services programs.

They and others have also fallen victim to state budget cuts — and, very importantly, a huge fall-off in income from IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Account) programs.

In 2009, the Legal Services Corporation reported that fewer than 20% of the legal problems low-income people experienced were handled with the help of an attorney.

The Corporation’s budget got cut by $15.8 million in the continuing resolution that’s keeping the federal government funded now.

So I had a sinking feeling when I gave N the contact information for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau’s Rockville office.

She needed a lawyer — actually had needed one for some time. But what are her chances of getting help with what’s now an urgent and fairly challenging problem?

What chances will other poor moms have if the Senate goes along with the House of Representatives’ spending rollback plan?


DC Council Cuts TANF Benefits, Approves Full Cut-Offs

December 26, 2010

Our lawmakers on the DC Council had decided to wrap up lawmaking for the year on December 21. They had a long agenda and, with Christmas fast approaching, probably shopping to finish up, parties to get to, etc.

So they decided to vote on a revised Budget Support Act* that they’d seen for the first time less than a day before. Decided not to worry that they wouldn’t have a second chance to vote, since Council Chairman Vincent Gray had introduced it as emergency legislation.

Gray had obviously had second thoughts about the impending cuts in cash benefit to families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Also third thoughts, since the final TANF provisions were significantly different from those I’d seen in a version of the substitute BSA circulated several days before.

For poor families dependent on TANF, there’s some tentative good news about cash benefits. Also some news that very ominous — both about cash benefits directly and about sanctions that will henceforward put families at risk of no benefits at all.

Cash Benefits

As I earlier wrote, the Council voted in early December to phase out benefits for TANF families who’d been in the program for a total of more than five years. This would have meant a 20% cut each year until 2015, when benefits would have been zeroed out.

The final version of the BSA imposes a 20% reduction on these families’ benefits after February 2011, but specifies no further reductions. In other words, it reverts to Mayor Fenty’s budget gap closing proposal.

However, the final BSA allows the mayor to adjust the level of TANF assistance payments through the rulemaking process. It thus opens the door to further benefits reductions.

We’ve got some evidence that Gray has his eye on them. The prior draft of his substitute BSA imposed an across-the-board 12% reduction. For a family of three, this would have meant a maximum of $377 a month — less than 25% of the federal poverty line.

Councilmembers got wind of this, thanks to some swift and effective advocacy. Gray apparently got enough pushback to opt for a strategic retreat. But I think it’s prudent to view further benefits reductions as dormant, not dead.

Sanctions

The final BSA apparently authorizes full family sanctions, i.e., termination of all cash assistance when a participating parent fails to comply with some program requirement.

I say “apparently” because the relevant provision doesn’t expressly authorize full family sanctions. But Chairman Gray referred to them in summarizing the BSA changes, and no one else on the Council piped up to challenge him.

As some of you may recall, Mayor Fenty’s mid-2009 budget gap closing proposal included full family sanctions. The Council rejected them — and wisely.

An Urban Institute study found that many District TANF recipients who’d been sanctioned faced serious challenges that might hinder not only their ability to comply with the work requirements, but even to understand them. Studies of TANF participants in other jurisdictions have raised similar concerns.

Yet the Council has decided to let the Department of Human Services move forward with a three-phase sanctions plan, ending in a total benefits cut-off for any failure to “participate [in] or complete an Individual Responsibility Plan,” i.e., the program of activities the participant is supposed to follow.

The final BSA directs the mayor to submit proposed sanctions policy rules to the Council by April 1. They’ll become effective 45 business days later unless the Council officials disapproves them.

But DHS has until September 30 to fully implement its TANF program reform plan. It can thus begin imposing full family sanctions before it has improved assessments, referral processes, training or other services.

Does it make any sense to punish recipients based on their failure to comply with an Individual Responsibility Plan that may be egregiously inappropriate? Because they haven’t received the services they’d need to comply?

What’s the big rush here anyway?

We know that DHS and some Councilmembers are very concerned about the high percentage of District TANF families who’ve been in the program for more than five years — close to 45%, according to recent testimony by DHS Director Clarence Carter.

How many of them could “graduate” if they’d just buckle down to their required job preparation and/or search activities is an open question. Full family sanctions supporters imply the answer is a lot of them. They just need a greater incentive than the partial sanctions already used.

During the Council’s discussion of the BSA, Chairman Gray said that we “need to encourage people to go to work,” implying that harsher sanctions will do that. But he also linked the new sanctions provision to his decision to, at least temporarily, limit the benefit reduction for long-term participants.

Councilmember Marion Barry, who supported the sanctions provision, noted that the existing appeals process will probably delay completion of the 20% reductions until the end of next year. In other words, not much by way of immediate savings from them.

But when Mayor Fenty proposed the reductions, they were supposed to contribute $4.6 million to closing the budget gap.

That could explain the rush.

As Legal Momentum recently reported, full family sanctions have contributed to large TANF caseload reductions. And states have financial incentives to impose them rather than rely on partial sanctions that preserve assistance for the children in a family.

With full family sanctions, states can avert penalties for failing to meet the federal work participation standard — something the District has struggled with. They can also free up funds for a variety of programs and services available to non-TANF families, e.g., child care, early childhood education.

So is the Council really hoping to bring a lot more families into compliance? Or is it banking on the savings DHS will realize by getting jobless families out of the TANF program?

Could it be hoping to mitigate budget constraints by having additional TANF funds for programs more politically popular than “welfare?”

* The Budget Support Act is one of two pieces of legislation needed to enact or make changes in the District’s budget. It makes whatever changes in existing legislation are necessary for the executive branch to carry out the spending directions in the Budget Request Act, i.e., the actual budget. Like most District legislation, it ordinarily must be passed by the Council twice.