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.

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?

Fair Budget Coalition to Host Its Own One City Summit, Says DC in Crisis

March 10, 2012

Monday morning, March 12, the Fair Budget Coalition will host its own One City Summit. One City (In Crisis) they call it.

No Convention Center space for this one. No slick participants’ guides. No digital keypads to vote on preferences. FBC doesn’t have half a million to blow on such things.

What it does have are some pretty alarming figures to justify its claim that the District is in crisis. For example:

  • One out of every three D.C. children is living in poverty.
  • One out of every five residents is on the waiting list for public housing or a voucher to help pay the rent.
  • One out of every ten residents is unemployed — and that’s just those who are actively looking for work.

The crisis doesn’t directly affect high-income residents, of course. Councilmember Jack Evans’s Georgetown constituents, for example, aren’t likely to be on that waiting list for subsidized housing.

It does, however, affect all of us who want to live in a city that’s not so radically divided between the haves and the have-nots. And all of us who want a secure, sustaining safety net for the latter.

Prospects for that don’t look so good — hence the FBC Summit.

At a recent briefing, Eric Goulet, Mayor Gray’s budget director, explained to us why the District couldn’t tap its reserve fund accounts — even the excess revenue surplus the Mayor chose to put there.

Also why the District couldn’t possibly cut funding for education or public safety.

And why it couldn’t, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute suggested, borrow for some capital projects, at current very low interest rates, rather than immediately pay for them out of operating revenues.

Capped all this by saying that the Mayor wouldn’t propose any significant revenue raisers to help close the budget gap — now reportedly $115 million. Last year’s flap over the modest income tax increase for high earners was enough for him.

So notwithstanding the usual claim that everything’s on the table, it seems that the only big thing left there is spending for human services programs.

These and other programs for low-income residents have been hit hard by successive budget-balancing feats.

Cuts to them last year accounted for 61% of the total — even after the DC Council restored about $23 million. Chalk this up, in large part, to the raid on affordable housing.

Taking the programs off the table would restore some balance to the budget, but still leave them far short of the resources they need.

We’re told that the DC Housing Authority needs an additional $6 million just to pay its share of the rent for people who have locally-funded housing vouchers.

Homeless services is running up hotel bills — and running through its budget — because it doesn’t have shelter space or other housing for nearly all the families who’ve become homeless.

This isn’t a shelter problem, Department of Human Services Director David Berns rightly says. It’s “inadequate affordable housing.” Closing the gap in the Local Rent Supplement Program won’t do a thing about this, though it could keep some now-housed families from becoming homeless.

The Mayor apparently wants to go at the housing problem from “the demand side,” i.e., to get more people into good-paying jobs so they can afford to pay market-rate rents. Well, that’s going to require some additional spending too.

The Fair Budget Coalition flags the need to increase funding for adult education and literacy programs — an obvious priority given the high functional illiteracy rate and the demands of our local job market.

Also advocates more money for child care subsidies so that parents who find jobs can go to work — and, I’d add, to pay for rent, food, clothing and other basic needs. Hard for low-income parents without subsidies to do when child care costs in the District can eat up two-thirds of full-time minimum wage.

The District’s redesigned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would fit in well with the demand-side focus — if DHS has the funds to do what it plans.

DCFPI rather doubts it does.

And, as the Institute notes, parents who’ve had no opportunity to benefit from the improvements will nevertheless lose more and more of the meager cash assistance that’s keeping some, though not all of them from homelessness.

Well, I could go on this way, but I think the point is clear. A Fiscal Year 2013 budget that’s balanced by spending cuts alone will not only cause greater hardships. It will undermine what the Mayor himself says he wants to achieve.

He couldn’t learn this at his One City Summit. Maybe FBC’s will get the message through.

What I Didn’t Know About the Payroll Tax Cut/UI Benefits Extension

January 12, 2012

I suppose everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the House Republicans agreed to temporarily extend the employee payroll tax cut and long-term unemployment insurance benefits.

The bill they’ve passed will also extend other legislation — but again, only for two months. So there’s more hinging on the House-Senate negotiations than the two items that have been getting the headlines.

And that, I think, means the Republicans have more bargaining chips — or to switch metaphors, hostages — than some of us realize.

One of them is the “doc fix,” i.e., the annual tweak to existing law that keeps Medicare reimbursements to physicians from dropping as they would if a cost-control measure adopted long ago took effect.

That you probably know about, since it’s already gotten major press coverage.

Not so for some about-to-expire programs for low-income individuals and families. I’ve heard barely a peep about these, except from advocacy organizations.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

I already knew TANF was expiring — though I confess that wasn’t at the forefront of my consciousness when the proverbial hit the fan in mid-December.

As I’d nervously noted back in October, Congress passed only a three-month, pared-back extension. Now TANF has a lease on life until March.

But it’s at risk, I think, of further cost-cutting and/or some “reforms” that achieve the same thing through the back door.

The big sticking point, after all, is how to come up with offsets equal to the cost of the extensions. The House Republicans’ Welfare Reform Act may be a preview of what they’ll push for.

Other Programs for Low-Income People

I didn’t know that other programs were expiring — and thus now also have just two months of official life. Maybe you didn’t either. So a brief introduction to these hostages.

One of the programs provides a funding stream for the Child Care and Development Fund — a major source of the funds states use to subsidize child care for low-income parents.

The Fund also ensures states invest in helping these parents find child care and in improving the quality of care their children receive.

Two other just-extended programs partially cover health care costs.

One provides funding for transitional Medicaid assistance so that TANF families continue to have affordable health insurance as they transition from dependence on cash assistance to gainful employment.

The other pays the Medicare Part B premiums for “qualified individuals,” i.e., some low-income seniors who have a bit too much to be eligible for Medicaid.

The premium cost for most seniors this year will be $99.90 per month — automatically deducted from their Social Security benefits.

A big bite for QI-eligible seniors, whose incomes barely top 150% of the federal poverty line.

But without Part B, they’d have no insurance coverage for outpatient medical care, home health care services or “durable medical equipment,” e.g., wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen tanks.

Looking Forward

All four of the above programs have bipartisan support. Even a lot of far-right Republicans voted to keep them going, since they were part of the original House payroll tax cut/UI extension bill.

So we can be quite certain they won’t die. Nor indeed, will TANF. But the very fact the Democrats care about them gives the Republicans leverage.

We can thus expect the Republican negotiators to use them as trade-offs for some very problematic parts of the House year-long extension bill — or at least, try to use them that way.

I’m not clear what leverage the Democrats have — besides another upsurge of public outrage and a potential for campaign messaging.

These worked last month, but the string of crisis situations we’ve experienced shows that ransoms do get paid.

Sigh of relief, therefore, but also breath-holding in this quarter.

NOTE: I’m indebted to the Coalition on Human Needs for alerting me to the broader implications of the extensions stalemate and to its Executive Director, Deborah Weinstein, for help with particulars. I’m solely responsible for the political perspective and for any errors here.

TANF Mothers Give Expert Advice On Program Reform

January 5, 2012

Some Capitol Hill staffers and other interested parties, including yours truly, got an earful on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from experts who know it well — five current and former “welfare mothers.”

As I’ve mentioned before, TANF is overdue for reauthorization, i.e., a thoroughgoing review and revision of the law that allows the federal government to spend money on the program and establishes its basic rules.

The Women for Economic Justice coalition organized the Hill briefing in part to change the “narrative” about single moms — this, I infer, because a fact-based view of their needs, ambitions and potential could lead to a better law than the one that’s been shredding the safety net since 1996.

If the five women who spoke can’t do it, I can’t imagine who could.

Stories of personal hardships — and mistakes — overcome by courage, smarts, energy and fierce determination to make life better for themselves and their children.

I’d expected them to address various issues often raised about TANF — woefully insufficient cash benefits, arbitrary sanctions, time limits, pressure to immediately get a job — any job, no matter how bad the fit and the pay.

And, indeed, we heard about some of these. But we heard most about educational opportunity — in some cases, how TANF had made higher education possible, in others how it thwarted college ambitions.

Magali, for example, was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when she was ten. She started working at thirteen because her mother couldn’t make enough to support them.

She married a man she thought was her “prince,” but found out was a life-threatening “monster.” For a long time, she felt she “had to keep quiet” because she depended on him for everything, including her tenuous immigration status.

But she ultimately fled with her children and wound up on TANF.

Given the opportunity, she passed the GED tests in a month. Then her local agency let her go to a community college rather than take a low-paying job — “gave her wings,” she said. Now she’s completing a degree at UCLA.

Rasheeda almost dropped out of high school after giving birth to her daughter. But she graduated with honors and went on to Temple University, where she completed a bachelors degree (with high honors) in three years and then a law degree.

With promise like that, it’s not surprising that she got scholarships and grants. The university provided housing for both her and her child. But without TANF cash assistance, she wouldn’t have had enough for their other basic living expenses.

Now she’s an attorney at a nonprofit legal services organization, where she represents and counsels low-income child care providers, “thereby increasing their economic stability and creating resources in the community” for low-income parents.

These are clearly exceptional women. And they seem to have had exceptionally good luck with TANF. Chalk this up partly to their state programs and partly, I would guess, to their caseworkers.

But we need to understand that the federal law severely restricts access to higher education and creates unique hurdles for those permitted to enroll.

Mary referred to some of them when she talked about her current experience with TANF.

She’d enrolled in the program when her first child was born, but then spent many years independently supporting herself and her family.

She returned to TANF fairly recently — one of the millions fired when the recession set in.

She wants to go back to school, thinking that a college education will improve her prospects in the job market. But TANF, she says, “allows only certain tracks.”

Specifically, she can enroll only in a program that qualifies as vocational education — unless, of course, she wants to pursue her studies while also putting in 30 hours a week in approved work-related activities.

Even with this restriction, she may or may not get work-activity credit for coursework. Under federal law, states can grant such credit to no more than 30% of their TANF participants — and then for only one year.

After that, studies can count for only part of a participant’s obligation. So Mary will have to put in 20 hours a week on other work activities — in addition to the time she’ll spend in classes and all but a fraction of  “unsupervised” homework.

This, of course, assumes she can get subsidized child care. Torrie was told she couldn’t if college was what she had in mind.

TANF is supposed to “end the dependency of needy parents.” Everything we know about the labor market tells us that postsecondary education is the best bet for doing that.

What sense does it make to impose artificial limits on college access? What sense to make successful completion more difficult for TANF parents than their better-off peers?

Questions one hopes our federal policymakers will ponder. And they might if they’d just get out of their ideological boxes and listen to real “welfare” moms.


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