Reprieve for DC TANF Families Awaits Needed Action

February 11, 2016

The post that launched this blog bashed the DC Council for rescinding a small increase in benefits for families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

That was in December 2008, when the recession had thrown the budget out of balance. I mention it now because we’ve come a long way since then — and in one major respect, a longer way from meeting the needs of the District’s poorest families.

In 2008, we left them with the same TANF cash benefit they’d been receiving. Now we’re going to leave some 6,000 of them with no cash at all come October — and more families as time goes one.

They’ll also lose the other benefits TANF families may receive — those that could enable some of the parents to more than fill the income gap.

Or they won’t all lose them. The Mayor and Council could at least partially remedy an extraordinarily harsh and counter-productive policy adopted in 2011.

A bill introduced in December would extend benefits for certain types of the at-risk families — and for all children, regardless of whether their parents qualify.

What Lost Benefits Means

First off, we’ve got to recall that the District’s TANF programs provides only very low cash benefits — a maximum of $441 a month for a parent with two children, for example.

If the family has participated in TANF for 60 or more months — not necessarily consecutive — it’s now receiving $154 a month or 9% of the federal poverty line. Not, one might think, much to lose.

But no cash assistance whatever will make a difference. For example, parents won’t have the money to supplement their families’ SNAP (food stamp) benefits, as recipients are expected to and generally must.

They won’t have the money that enables some of them and their kids to remain housed — often by doubling up with another family and paying some of the living costs.

Getting tossed out of TANF — and with no possible return — will also deny them other benefits that can enable some of them to make it on their own.

For example, they’ll no longer have a trained professional to help them develop and carry out a self-sufficiency plan based on their strengths and needs.

They’ll no longer have subsidies for transportation to programs that improve their prospects in the labor market or to job fairs, interviews and the like.

They may no longer have childcare subsidies either — and most surely won’t have anything like the money needed to pay for child care themselves.

All these losses will impair the well-being and future prospects of more than 13,000 children, not counting those we can’t yet count. So we’ll have another generation of families mired in poverty.

How We Came to This Pretty Pass

The policy that puts so many families at risk never made good sense, even from a narrow cost perspective.

Sheltering homeless families is hardly free. Medical care for children isn’t either. And we know that food insecurity — and the insecurity of having no home — puts kids at high risk for both physical and mental illnesses.

So how did our policymakers come to put the rigid time limit in place? Well, the DC Council hastily passed a bill pushed by then-Chairman Vincent Gray, who was about to become mayor. The time limit, the Department of Human Services had said, better aligned District policy with federal law.

But the federal law doesn’t require the District or any state to set a time limit. It merely restricts use of the block grant funds that cover a share of TANF program costs to 60 months of benefits per family.

And even here, not altogether. States may further extend benefits for up to a fifth of their TANF families and still use federal funds to pay for them if, among other things, the loss would cause hardship, however the state defines that.

The DC Council, however, made no provisions for extensions. It didn’t even, as most states did, start the countdown when it set the time limit. That would have been only fair in any circumstances.

It was especially harsh and unwise here because the District’s TANF program had egregious flaws, amply documented by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and SOME (So Others Might Eat) before the Council acted.

The flaws, in various ways, minimized a parent’s chances of moving from welfare to work that paid anything like enough — for long enough — to support her and her children.

The Council and about-to-be-former Mayor Adrian Fenty paid no heed. Gray’s new Director of Human Services did, however. He produced a plan to overhaul the TANF program.

Took quite a long time to get it fully operative, however. Parents often had to wait many months to get the training or job search help their plans called for — this after they finally got assessed. But the wait times counted.

And results for the parents up against the time limit suggest that many found — or were placed — in jobs that didn’t last for long or pay enough while they did.

This may reflect on the quality of the services. But it also indicates that many of the time-limited families are headed by parents who can’t — at least, at this point — surmount unusually high barriers to gainful employment.

Why Barriers Argue Against Rigid Time Limits

We’ve known of daunting work barriers for a very long time. A 2003 report from the Urban Institute cited 15 in the District’s TANF caseload. What they tell us — and should have told the Council — is that the rigid time limit doesn’t propel all parents through job training and into the workforce.

Some may become work-ready given more time. Others face barriers that have no foreseeable time limit — severe mental disabilities, for example.

I may have more to say about barriers and the proposed extensions. For now, just a parting shot.

Cash benefits for families now facing cut-offs have been repeatedly cut. That’s why our three-person family receives just $154 a month. The mom could make nearly six times that working only half time at a job paying the District’s minimum wage.

Seems to me no one can reasonably doubt that she would if she could.


Where Did All the Welfare Money Go?

September 17, 2012

We all know that Republican policymakers view Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as a resounding success.

Look, they say, at how caseloads fell after Congress ended welfare as we knew it — and President Clinton signed off on the deal. We should turn more programs into block grants like TANF — Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) for starters.

Caseloads did indeed fall. And they barely rose when the Great Recession set in.

Only 27% of poor parents with children got any TANF cash benefits in 2010 — 41% fewer than the year TANF was born.

And those benefits were woefully paltry — for a family of three, less than 30% of the federal poverty line in all but eight states.

A new analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us why.

It’s not just because Congress has never increased the block grant funds states get as the federal government’s share, thus letting them lose at least 28% of their value.

Nor because Congress cut — and then wiped out — supplemental grants that some states had always received to compensate for ways the block grant formula short-changed them.

It’s because states are spending large chunks of their block grant funds and/or the funds they’ve got to put up as a partial match* on programs that aren’t only — or even mainly — for TANF families.

In other words, because they’re creatively exercising the much-vaunted flexibility that block grants like TANF provide.

Last year, for example, states spent, on average, only 29% of their TANF funds on cash assistance.

Another 9.4% went for services that help move families from welfare to work, e.g., education, job training, transportation assistance.

Child care subsidies accounted for another 17%. They too help move families from welfare to work, but they don’t necessarily go only to TANF and former TANF families.

What about the rest of the money?

Well, some of it paid for states’ refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, some for programs to promote marriage and discourage out-of-wedlock births and some for other legally-authorized purposes, e.g., programs states had spent money on before TANF was created.

The expenditures “authorized under prior law” don’t have to meet any of the goals Congress established for TANF. Many states, for example, claim child welfare spending as part of their match, though their programs rightly address child neglect and abuse at all income levels.

States also, CBPP reports, have claimed spending on their pre-K programs and on higher education grants for students with incomes way above the TANF eligibility level.

Such spending apparently gets lumped into an “other non-assistance” spending category in their reports to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Child welfare services may get reported this way, as may various other services, e.g., for domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse, payments to third parties for food assistance and/or shelter.

Bottom line is that states have been using TANF funds to replace funds they’d previously budgeted for these diverse purposes — or would have had to budget, using funds from other sources.

This, of course, frees up funds for other programs that have nothing whatever to do with the safety net or helping low-income families toward self-sufficiency.

There’s lots of variation among states, however. CBPP provides summaries for each and the District of Columbia.

So we learn that, in 2011, the District spent:

  • No more of its TANF funds on cash assistance than it did 10 years before — $67 million. True level funding, i.e., with adjustments for inflation, would have called for somewhat over $85 million.
  • Just $1 million more on work-related activities — again, as compared to 2001. This means about $6.2 million less when we account for inflation.
  • $5 million more on child care, but less in inflation adjusted dollars.

Spending in all these categories declined as a percent of the District’s total TANF spending. The biggest drop was for cash assistance — down by 9%.

Contrariwise, both the percent and absolute dollar value of the combined AUPL/non-assistance category jumped — from $4 million (2%) to $39 million (15%).

Sure would like to know where that money went.

* Under federal rules, states may count third-party spending, both cash and in-kind, as part of their maintenance of effort, i.e., their required match. Thirteen states did in 2011, CBPP’s end-year for spending comparisons.

NOTE: I have made a few wording changes in this post to correct for a misinterpretation of CBPP’s figures on the District’s TANF spending.

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.

Reprieve for DC TANF Families (We Hope)

June 7, 2012

The DC Council came through for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — as best it could, given that the budget itself was already set in stone.

After some lengthy and heated discussion, it approved an amendment to the Budget Support Act* that would delay further benefits cuts for families who’ve participated in the program for 60 months or more.

And a good thing too. As I (and others) have argued, these families shouldn’t be penalized because the program has egregiously failed to identify their strengths and needs and to link them to the appropriate mix of services.

The additional year before the cuts resume will supposedly give them an opportunity to benefit from program improvements the Department of Human Services is rolling out.

“Supposedly” because DHS still has a long way to go before completing the assessments that will form the basis for individually-tailored training and supportive services plans. Only 25% completed now, according to Councilmember Jim Graham, who introduced the amendment.

At the current rate, some of the at-risk parents won’t have anything like a full year to benefit from their plans. Whether even a year would be enough to enable some of them to secure — and retain — living-wage jobs is another question.

All but three Councilmembers voted for the amendment — a tribute to some very fine advocacy. That plus an evident desire on the part of a couple of Councilmembers not to be on the losing side of a cause that obviously had majority support.

The Council also unanimously rubber-stamped then-Chairman Kwame Brown’s substitute for the BSA it passed in mid-May.

This too is good news for TANF families and those who care about them because the revised BSA folds in some additional provisions that were part of the proposed TANF Time Limits Amendment — or rather folds in something akin to them.

Most would expand eligibility for POWER (Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility) — thus shifting some parents out of TANF and shielding them, at least temporarily, from the 60-month time limit.

These are parents who can’t reasonably be expected to meet the TANF program’s regular work activity requirements — those who, for example, are receiving services to help them recover from the trauma of domestic violence, caring for a severely disabled family member or still in their teens and enrolled in school.

Another provision could give parents an additional 24 months to continue their postsecondary education or participation in a training program leading to a certificate or the equivalent.

Smart move since enabling these parents to get those degrees and certificates is the very best thing the program could do to help them achieve self-sufficiency.

Still another provision would prohibit DHS from counting toward the 60 months time that a child received benefits while living with an adult or adults who didn’t.

These so-called child-only cases are often exempt from the standard time limit — as they surely ought to be since one can hardly expect a child to engage in direct preparation for work.

So the Council did the right thing.

But (why is there always a but?) the benefits cuts will go forward as scheduled unless the Chief Financial Officer projects more revenues than the budget assumes.

Specifically, the estimated $3.8 million cost of the delay will be carved out of the additional $14.7 million for TANF job training that’s second on the list of priorities that will get funded if revenue estimates are higher.

In other words, the fate of more than 6,100 families — including nearly 14,000 children — hinges on a projected revenue increase of at least $10.8 million.

The exemptions and exceptions also hinge on higher revenue projections and would be paid for by another carve-out from the job training pool — this one about $1.75 million, according to the BSA.

As some disturbed Councilmembers observed, the time limits delay will eat into additional funding needed to provide appropriate job training and other services — assuming the hoped-for revenues materialize.

So will the exemptions, though no one mentioned it.

The end result is thus a tad perverse, but the Council chose it by not grappling with the timing and coverage of the benefits phase-out earlier.

Or perhaps I should say the former Council Chairman chose it since the BSA was largely an artifact of his private dealings with Mayor Gray’s staff, and both he and the administration apparently underestimated the support the benefits delay would have.

I have nothing like the expertise that would be needed to comb through the Fiscal Year 2013 budget and identify funds that could obviously have been better spent on benefits for the very poor families who rely on them — and on training that would enable many of them to be off “welfare,” which they want as much as the Mayor and Council do.

I’ve just got a hard time believing that everything in the $9.4 billion budget is more important.

As things stand now, we’ve just got to keep our fingers crossed.

* The Budget Support Act is the package that makes whatever legislative changes the Budget Request Act, i.e., the budget proper, requires.