Funding for programs operated by the DC Department of Human Services has been something of a shell game.
In October 2009, we learned — months after the budget was passed — that funds in the federal block grant for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program wouldn’t be used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation, as they had been in the past. About $12 million had silently been allocated to other priorities.
Then $8.4 million of the funding DHS received from the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund was shifted to cover a cost overrun in last year’s Summer Youth Employment Program.
Now we learn that funds to sustain the Interim Disabilities Assistance program have been used to fill budget gaps somewhere else.
The funds shifted this time came from the Social Security Administration as partial reimbursement for the local funds IDA had spent to tide disabled District residents over while their applications for Supplemental Security Income were pending.
IDA is one of those relatively small programs that makes a big difference in the lives of low-income residents who are too severely disabled to work — thus potentially eligible for SSI.
The process of getting an SSI claim approved is notoriously lengthy — often several years, due to frequent needs to appeal. So, as its name suggests, IDA provides temporary assistance.
The maximum stipend is $270 per month — hardly enough to live on. But as Stacy Braverman at Bread for the City testified last year, it can help recipients cover essential expenses that actually save the District money, e.g., co-pays for prescription drugs, rent.
SSA reimburses the District for benefits it provides to claimants who are ultimately successful. IDA thus recovers about 40% of the local funds spent. Plowed back into the program, the recovered funds have been used to provide stipends for people on the waiting list.
Because, ironically, there’s a waiting list at IDA for people who are already, in a manner of speaking, on the waiting list for SSI. Has been since Fiscal Year 2008, when the DC Council used the program’s unspent carryover funds to help close a budget gap.
From that time forward, IDA has been subject to a series of cuts.
As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s budget brief shows, the total budget originally approved for this fiscal year was $6 million less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the original Fiscal Year 2010 total. Totals here include the on-hand and projected SSA reimbursements, as well as the approved local funding.
The Fiscal Year 2010 gap-closing measure took away $2.8 million. The latest gap-closer, passed in December, took another $1.2 million.
This left the program with just $3.2 million and a waiting list of more than 500 residents too disabled to work and ineligible for TANF — the District’s other major source of cash assistance for poor adults.
Enrollment has been capped at 1,500 residents — this based on the assumption that all the SSA reimbursement funds would be available.
Now we hear that no one on the waiting list will get benefits until the caseload shrinks to 600. That could be a very long time — long enough to make the temporary lifeline IDA is supposed to provide meaningless.
So it seems to me that Mayor Gray should do a couple of things.
One is to make the IDA program whole and propose enough Fiscal Year 2012 local funding to eliminate the need for a waiting list.
Deliberately delaying benefits for people who are waiting for benefits subverts the purpose of the program and creates greater cost pressures elsewhere, e.g. in homeless services, emergency room costs.
It also creates a vicious circle because the fewer people who receive benefits, the less the District gets back from SSA, which means that even fewer people receive benefits, the District gets even less back, etc.
I’m told that IDA would need a local funding increase about as big as its total original Fiscal Year 2011 allocation, SSA funds included, just to support a caseload up to the official cap. The cap itself is one of the main reasons why.
The second thing I hope the mayor will do is declare — and enforce — a much higher level of transparency. Backroom fund shifts that come to light only after the fact — and only because the advocacy community is monitoring — is no way to run a government.
UPDATE: A new posting on DCFPI’s blog, The District’s Dime, recaps what’s at risk if IDA funding isn’t restored. It features a short video of three D.C. residents, who speak of their own situations and what the program has meant to them.
Take a look and then, as the video urges, “preserve human dignity” by contacting Mayor Gray at email@example.com and his budget director Eric Goulet at firstname.lastname@example.org.