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.


New Hopes For DC Tax Reforms

November 18, 2010

Local listservs are buzzing. Advocacy groups are huddling. We’re all concerned about how the DC Council will close the $175 million gap in the current budget.

We know that spending cuts will be at least part of the answer. What they’ll be and how big are open questions. But if past is prologue, programs that serve the needs of low-income residents will be highly vulnerable.

Last year, funding for human services and other programs for low-income people took at $49 million hit — the second largest after public education. And it could have been worse if the District hadn’t still had unused federal stimulus funds for our schools.

It would have been better if Mayor Fenty and the DC Council had focused more on the revenue side of the ledger. What we got were a couple of sales and excise tax increases, plus freezes in the homestead property deduction and the standard exemption and personal deduction in the income tax — all disproportionately costly for low-income residents.

This year a similar story. Some fee increases, a couple of highly targeted taxes and one regressive expansion in the sales tax, which now covers soft drinks, but not various services used mostly by higher-income residents.

But maybe the day for a serious look at the local tax structure has dawned. Soon-to-be-mayor Vincent Gray has remarked that services have been cut to the bone. “Actually, we’ve cut down to the bone marrow,” he’s said.

More importantly, he’s reportedly told attendees at two successive ward meetings that he’s ready to consider new or expanded revenue raisers.

As you may recall, the Save Our Safety Net coalition championed two news brackets last spring — a 9% rate for residents with incomes over $200,000 and a 9.4% rate for those with incomes over $1 million.

SOS-DC is back on the case — hopeful that it can help shift Gray and a couple of other Councilmembers to the “yea” column. How many have to shift depends on when the Council gets around to voting.

SOS is still working as the grassroots arm of the Fair Budget Coalition and an overlapping coalition including FBC members, local labor organizations and some faith-based and other community groups.

They’re now focusing on one new tax bracket — 1% higher for residents earning over $200,000. This, I assume, is after the adjustments the federal tax code permits.

Gray has said that he thinks District residents will at least be open to tax increases if they understand how damaging a cuts-only approach to budget balancing will be. “If we can make the case that the vulnerable are going to be imperiled, I think there are going to be a lot of people who are going to entertain some sort of tax increase.”

“Some sort,” of course, covers a lot of territory. But a new top tax bracket certainly could be there, along with some other measures that would increase both revenues and fairness. I’m still hopeful eliminating the District’s almost unique exemption for interest paid on out-of-state bonds.

Gray has reportedly challenged advocates to make the case to the public. Originally, I thought this was shifting the burden where it didn’t belong. Now, however, it appears that what he actually wants are the facts, figures and, very importantly, the stories to help him make the case.

He’s planning to work with fellow Councilmembers on a list of potential budget cuts and then seek public input on whether taxes should be raised instead. So look for announcements of public hearings — or maybe just one of those all-nighters the Council sometimes perpetrates.

In the meantime, there’s a need to show that we, like Gray, wouldn’t mind paying more if the trade-off were protecting investments in our safety net and other key programs that can give low-income residents a better chance at finding full-time, living-wage work.

SOS-DC has an editable letter we can send to our representatives on the Council. A quick, easy way to voice our support for a balanced approach to budget balancing.

Save Our Safety Net Campaign Relaunched

March 26, 2010

The dark cloud over last year’s District budget deliberations had a silver lining. As I noted in my review of the Fair Budget Coalition’s new report, advocacy on behalf of low-income District residents shifted to a savvier strategy. Instead of just insisting on spending at or above prior levels, advocates offered recommendations for balancing program cuts with revenue-raisers.

At the same time, they reached out to engage a broader base of supporters, including a number of local congregations and small businesses. The campaign also birthed an online grassroots component–Save Our Safety Net. This was initially a one-time effort to raise awareness of pending cuts and let the DC Council hear from concerned constituents.

The Save Our Safety Net website has been relaunched as an ongoing source of information, stories and opportunities to weigh in. Unlike some more staid sites, it’s essentially a framework for diverse social media–original videos, tweets, petitions and, coming soon, a blog.

The SOS website aims to be a virtual community of individuals–a platform for voices that aren’t generally heard in the halls of the John A. Wilson building. The hope is to build an active coalition of residents whose lives are or have been affected by our local safety net programs and others who care about their well-being and the well-being of our community as a whole.

As with the FBC report, the bottom-line message is the need for a balanced approach to this year’s budget shortfall. Safety net programs have already taken more than their share of cuts–a total of $100 million, SOS says. It advocates instead a new top tax bracket for the city’s highest-income residents.

You can help give force to this message by signing the petition to the mayor on the site’s home page. And be sure to click the box(es) if you’ve received a safety net service and/or would be affected by the tax proposal. The latter, I think, is especially important.

We’ve heard a lot about how better-off residents and small businesses will flee to the suburbs if District taxes are made more progressive. We haven’t heard, but can reasonably assume that Mayor Fenty and DC Councilmembers are anxious about their re-election campaigns too.

They need to know that funding sources–for the city and for their campaigns–will do their share to save our already-tattered safety net. And that includes holding them accountable for how they choose to balance the budget.