Will We Have DC Families Living on Less Than $2 a Day?

September 28, 2015

Short answer to the question the title poses is we already do, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. And about a year from now, we could have well over 6,000, including about 13,000 children with no cash income whatever unless Mayor Bowser comes up with a lifeline that the DC Council approves.

“This is the single most important moment for poverty in D.C.” since the birth of DCFPI in 2001, Executive Director Ed Lazere told a group of us meeting to discuss the crisis those families may face.

What Has Driven So Many Families Into Such Deep Poverty

Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months or more have exceeded the time limit District law now sets. It provides for a benefits phase-out leading to zero in October 2016.

The Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut, but then let it resume. So a three-person TANF family now receives a benefit equivalent to 9% (not a typo) of the federal poverty line.

What Federal Law Has to Do With the Time Limit

No state or the District must have a time limit. We can trace the reason virtually all do to the law that established TANF. It generally prohibits states from using their federal block grant funds for cash assistance to adults or minor heads-of-household after they’ve been in the program for 60 months. Exceptions allowed, however (of which more below).

What We Know About TANF and Work

Parents do, by and large, seem to have a sense of urgency about finding work. Extremely low benefits, as well as imminent cut-offs help account for this, though we shouldn’t ignore aspirations and values they share with the great majority of Americans.

Staying in the workforce — and in a job that pays more than the very low maximum for TANF eligibility — is another matter.

We know from past research that adults who leave TANF for work or because work they had began to pay more often return to the program — about one in five during the late 1990s, when the labor market was considerably more favorable than it is now.

A more recent audit of the District’s longest-term participants casts severe doubts on their employment and earnings prospects. Fewer than half the parents who’d received job training and/or placement help got a job of any sort. And only a tiny fraction still had those jobs six months later.

These dismal results probably reflect, among other things, reasons they’ve come up against the time limit. A deplorable lack of current research here.

But we know from a 2002 study of the District’s TANF caseload that most parents who’d remained in the program for three years faced multiple barriers to work, e.g., less than a high school education, little (or no) work experience, mental health problems, recent and severe domestic violence, sick children or other family members they had to care for.

These findings generally conform to others. An evaluation of a Minnesota TANF employment program, for example, found, among other things, that about two-thirds of participants had a physical or learning disability, a mental health problem and/or responsibility for an incapacitated family member.

What the District Could Do

The District had no time limit until 2011, after soon-to-be Mayor Gray pushed through a bill during his last days as Council Chairman — a license for him to revert to his earlier benefits phase-out plan.

And indeed, he did, but with none of the relief options federal rules allow. For example, the District could extend benefits beyond the time limit for up to 20% of its average caseload and still use federal funds to pay for them so long as the families met criteria for “hardship,” however it chose to define that, or had a member who’d been “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.”

Most states extend benefits when parents, for various reasons, can’t be expected to immediately find work — because they’re victims of domestic violence, for example, sick or incapacitated or caring for family member who is.

As of mid-2013, 14 states provided extensions when parents were “cooperating,” i.e., doing what their plans said they should, but couldn’t find work. This would seem especially relevant to the District’s at-risk families.

Though we don’t know how many of the parents have less than a high school diploma or the equivalent, we do know that working-age residents (25-64 years old) without the credential have very high unemployment rates — nearly 14.6% last year, according to the American Community Survey. Probably even higher for younger residents.

We also know that parents in the District’s TANF program are still on waiting lists for job training and placement services — about 300, the new head of the agency responsible for TANF told us at the meeting.

More to the point perhaps, parents waited, on average, 11 months for such services last year. But the clock kept ticking toward the time limit.

And some of them were pretty far along before the Department of Human Services rolled out improvements in both the training component and the assessments used to decide which services would best prepare parents for work. Time in the old problem-riddled program still counts.

What Will Happen Next

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year pushes back the benefits cut-off that was originally set for October 2015 in part because the Mayor wanted DHS to have some time to develop an extension policy — something it should have done four years ago.

One can hope the policy recognizes the fact that the vast majority of TANF parents aren’t to blame for remaining unemployed — or so egregiously under-employed as to still be income-eligible.

Nor to blame if some unforeseeable barrier arises after they’ve passed the time limit, e.g., an eruption of domestic violence or stalking, a debilitating illness. Needless to say, children aren’t to blame, no matter what.

All this calls for not only liberal extensions, but a rollback of the benefits cuts that have caused such dire hardships for the 60-month families.

Yet even the best extension policy and fully restored benefits can’t make up for flaws in the basic structure of the federal TANF law — the main reason some 1.5 million families have had to get by on, at most, $2 a day.


DC Should Spend Some of BIG Surplus on Urgent Safety Net Needs

January 28, 2013

Tomorrow, the District’s Chief Financial Officer reportedly plans to release the results of the Fiscal Year 2012 audit. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, it will show a surplus of at least $140 million — maybe as much as $400 million.

Under current law, the entire surplus, no matter how large, must go into the fund balance — essentially, a savings account.

The DC Council passed the law in 2010, after several years of tapping reserves to make up for revenue drops during the recession.

The law might have made sense then, though I personally feel that such hand-tying measures are a poor substitute for responsible policymaking.

Sweeping the whole surplus into savings certainly doesn’t make sense now, when the Council has identified priorities to fund if the CFO projected higher revenues within the first three quarters of the year.

That he didn’t reflects his very conservative approach to ensuring budgets remain balanced — clearly seen in his accounts of potential impacts on the national economy.

He did nevertheless project a surplus close to $140 million at the end of the fiscal year.

As I said at the time, the Mayor could have asked the Council to pass a bill that would have freed up some of the surplus for items on the contingency revenue “wish list.”

The Fair Budget Coalition and grassroots supporters urged him to do this — and the Council to approve the request.

Nada. So as things stand now:

  • Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of more than 60 months will lose a portion of their meager cash benefits. For about 6,100, this will be a second cut.
  • At the same time, the TANF program won’t have as much as it needs for job training, counseling and other services that could help some of these families “graduate” from welfare to work.
  • The Department of Human Services could face a shortfall of at least $7 million for homeless services. And even if it got that, it will again start denying shelter to homeless families when the winter season officially ends — unless it gets more than is needed to plug the identified budget gap.
  • Meanwhile, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the main source of local budget support for affordable housing construction and preservation — will remain shy $20 million. So there’ll be minimal new funding for long-term housing solutions to homelessness.
  • And as if this weren’t enough, I’m told that homeless youth could have an even harder time getting shelter and services when they need them, due to recent agency contract changes.

The Mayor and Council could meet all these needs and still have a stash to add to the burgeoning fund balance — already $1.1 billion by the end of 2011.

All that’s needed is a reset of what seem to be some skewed priorities — or perhaps a thoughtless adherence to a commitment made when the District’s financial affairs were quite different.

Or perhaps only a preoccupation with other things, e.g., how Councilmembers would be accommodated during the inauguration.

Whatever explains the inaction thus far, another surge of grassroots pressure could persuade our decision-makers to do the right thing.

The Fair Budget Coalition has an editable letter we can send them.

UPDATE: The CFO reported a surplus of $417 million. The Mayor intends to bank it all, increasing reserves to $1.5 billion. He’s indicated that he might see his way clear to making some investments in social programs (unnamed) if revenue projections for the current fiscal year are revised upward.


Homelessness, Child Poverty Not Emergencies, DC Mayor and Council Decide

November 5, 2012

Last Thursday, the DC Council hastily approved emergency legislation* Mayor Gray had requested to spend $23 million left over from last fiscal year.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, the funds went to the District’s charter and regular public schools, the Metro system, parks and recreation and the detention facility for youth who’ve gotten in trouble with the law.

At least some of the money may have been needed to cover agency budget overruns. These are prohibited by the Anti-Deficiency Act.

But it’s hard to see how technology upgrades for the public schools would qualify as an emergency. What we see here rather is a clear display of the Mayor’s priorities — and perhaps the Council majority’s as well.

The Fair Budget Coalition and allies had earlier asked the Mayor to propose a bill that would allocate some of the projected $140 million revenue surplus — another pot of found money — to three top priorities he and the Council had already agreed on.

These priorities would have served pressing needs of the District’s homeless residents and its families (many of them homeless) in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

They would also have restored some of the funds diverted from the Housing Production Trust  Fund, thus supporting efforts to address the acute shortage of affordable housing here.

Not only homeless families, but some of the 36,000 District households who are paying half or more of their income for rent would have been better off.

The FBC requests were carefully framed to be one-time spending because laws governing the District’s budget prohibit measures that could create deficits in future years.

The proposals the Council just approved instead were also for one-time funding.

So the Mayor clearly could have decided that it was more urgent to mend the safety net and/or shore up the Trust Fund than to give nearly $7 million more to the public school system, plus an equal amount to the charter schools — the latter nominally for facilities, but actually for whatever they want.

Or, as DCFPI suggested, the Council could have postponed final decisions on how best to spend as much of the new-found money as wasn’t needed to cover overruns.

Some Councilmembers reportedly were fussed that the Mayor waited until the eleventh hour to give them a plan for the extra $23 million. But only two fussed enough to dig in their heels.

Set aside what seems to be deliberate manipulation — “a gun to our head,” in Councilmember Catania’s words.

I’d have thought that Councilmembers would have had enough concern for the priorities they’d already identified to balk at a bill that totally ignored them.

Shouldn’t they, at the very least, have wanted to make sure that the emergency shelter and other services triggered by Hurricane Sandy didn’t leave the Department of Human Services even shorter on funds than it’s likely to be?

I know this sounds as if I don’t care about the quality of public education D.C. children receive. In fact, I care a lot.

I do think, however, that the Mayor and Council might have considered that homelessness puts children at high risk for academic failure — no matter how nifty a “learning environment” their schools provide.

Living in a home where there’s not enough money to keep the heat and lights on doesn’t help kids get a quality education either.

Nor shoes that pinch because a new pair isn’t affordable. Nor the stress of worrying whether your belongings will be all piled on the sidewalk when you get home.

All more likely for the nearly 14,000 children in families who’ll soon lose a hefty portion of their very low cash benefits from the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

DCFPI thanks the Mayor and Council for putting $11 million more into the TANF program.

But these are funds the Mayor had promised over two months ago. And they’ll delay the scheduled benefits cuts only until April.

Some 6,100 families will face dire emergencies then — as may hundreds of homeless men and women who could be out on the streets because DHS doesn’t have enough money to shelter them.

Not enough money to shelter newly homeless families either, though the benefits cuts will presumably create more of them.

All emergencies worth some of that $23 million, I think.

* The Council designates bills as emergency legislation to bypass requirements that ordinarily require two votes at successive meetings, plus 30 days for Congressional review (and potential disapproval).


How to Change Mayor Gray’s Plans for DC’s $140 Million Surplus

October 15, 2012

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Chief Financial Officer for the District of Columbia expects that revenues for the just-ended fiscal year will be about $140 million higher than he earlier projected.

Mayor Gray has said that the whole $140 million should go into a reserve account. That’s what the law requires, but perhaps only if he sits on his hands.

As things stand now, he may because he’s put a top priority on building up savings — already totaling $1.1 billion — so that the District’s got a big stash it could use for some future emergency.

We’ve got emergencies staring us in the face. And if the CFO had projected the surplus earlier, the extra funds would have been used to address those that the Mayor and DC Council agreed were most urgent.

That’s also the law — specifically, the Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Support Act, which includes a list of programs that would get more funding (and the amounts they’d get) if revenue projections before the tail end of the fiscal year indicated that the needed revenues were available.

Top of the list is $7 million to make up for federal funds that the District had used for homeless services, but didn’t expect to have in this new fiscal year.

Next on the list are funds for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Some would provide more money for job training, counseling and other services participating parents need. Another portion would delay until next October the cuts in benefits for families who’ve been in the program for more than five years.

These families surely ought to have a chance to benefit from the improved training, counseling, etc. before they’re penalized for not finding work that pays enough to lift them above the TANF income eligibility ceiling.

Also near the top of the list are funds to partly restore those that the Mayor, with the Council’s approval, shifted out of the Housing Production Trust Fund — the main source of local funding for creating and preserving affordable housing here.

So the (relative) well-being of thousands of District residents hinges on a legal technicality. The Mayor could easily resolve it by asking the Council for a one-time, partial exception to the use of end-of-year surplus revenues.

Or the Mayor and Council might find funds for the top-of-list priorities elsewhere. Councilmember Jim Graham, after all, found $14 million in unspent child welfare funds. The audits that are always done at the end of a fiscal year may well turn up more unspent funds.

The source doesn’t matter. A firm commitment to fund these priorities does — and a commitment not to have funding for basic human needs like shelter, housing and cash for kids’ clothes on some extra revenue “wish list” in the future.

Or, for that matter, adequate funding for other anti-poverty programs like relevant job training and supportive services, e.g., affordable, high-quality child care, mental health counseling.

Which is why we need to exert some grassroots pressure on the Mayor and Council.

The Fair Budget Coalition has an editable e-mail we can send to let them know that we want some portion of the surplus spent on the top priorities — and longer-term commitments that ensure we don’t keep having these preventable emergencies.

As I remarked before, the Mayor and Council could fund the priorities and still have plenty of surplus revenues to put in the bank. Their choice, but we can help them make it.