What We Know About DC Parents Up Against the TANF Time Limit

November 3, 2016

The working group deputed to advise on the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program gathered various kinds of information before making the recommendations I recently blogged on.

Among the most influential, I’d guess, were two newly-gathered sets of data that tell us — and decision-makers — more about the 6,560 or so TANF parents whose families will be at or over the 60-month lifetime participation limit next October, unless the Mayor and Council agree to an alternative.

For one set, the Department of Human Services did what seems a limited analysis of the families’ case records. For the other — and to me, more enlightening — it asked the parents some questions. The working group’s report includes an analysis of the results.

They bolster the case for eliminating the time limit because they cast grave doubts on the parents’ prospects for getting — and keeping — jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their children. Not such grave doubts for all, however, if they’re given more time in the program.

Here’s a sampling of what we learn.

Twenty-two percent of the survey respondents reported they were working, but very few of them full time. All but 39% usually worked for no more than 30 hours a week.

The fact that most of those already over the time limit have children under 10 helps explain this, but so may the hiring and scheduling practices that depress earnings for so many low-wage workers.

Nearly half the working parents earned less than $250 a week. A mother with two children would need about $388 a week, every week, just to lift the family over the federal poverty line.

About half the parents hadn’t participated in TANF for 60 months running. Three-quarters of those who’d left had done so because they’d gotten a job and/or began earning too much for their families to still qualify.

About the same percent were back in the program because they’d lost their jobs or couldn’t find a job that would enable them to support their families. These may include the 11% who said they’d re-enrolled because they couldn’t afford child care. Seems they’d lost the subsidies TANF parents get.

Their resumes may have lacked proof of the high-level skills so many local employers require. Thirty-one percent of the parents surveyed said that lack of sufficient education and/or training made it difficult for them to work.

The same percent are currently trying to get a GED or high school diploma — hardly something they could invest as much (if any) time in if kicked out of the program.

They’ll have a hard time getting any job without even this minimal credential. The unemployment rate for working-age residents with less is nearly 20%, according to the most recent analysis we have.

More than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require at least some postsecondary education by 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects.

This, of course, suggests that the job market will remain very tight — if not get tighter — for the least educated TANF parents. Hence, the need to ensure that TANF will remain a safety net for them and their children.

But it also argues for eliminating the time limit in a different way because 38% of the at-risk parents are taking college-level courses now. And scholarships the District provides exclusively for TANF parents probably help them cover the costs, as do the childcare and transportation subsidies.

Lack of work experience caused problems for 35% of the parents — perhaps some of the same who cited insufficient education and/or training as a barrier.

Far from all parents face only these barriers. More than half cited at least one sort of health problem as a reason they weren’t working, looking for work or regularly participating in a TANF training program.

Physical health problems pose a barrier for well over one in three. The case review found 18% with mental health needs that remained unmet — presumably meaning that the parents still suffered from them.

The federal Supplemental Security Income program provides modest cash benefits for people whose disabilities make self-supporting work impossible.

But relatively few who apply get them — and none who can’t prove, among other things, that their disability will last at least a year (or that they’ll die sooner) and precludes any sort of paying work.

A top-flight TANF expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put the chances that the 60-month or over parents could make up for their lost benefits with SSI at no more than 10%.

Understandably, more than half the parents facing lifetime banishments from TANF believe it will be harder for them to meet their families’ needs. An additional 25% don’t know.

They’re, of course, viewing their prospects in today’s job market. Come the next recession — and one will come — there’ll be fewer job openings and more recently-employed people competing for them.

What then for the many thousands of families tossed out of TANF — and others who’ll reach the 60-month limit during the downturn?

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Why DC Should End “One Size Fits All” TANF Time Limit

February 18, 2016

We often see “one size fits all” used to characterize programs of various sorts, including the District of Columbia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The services aren’t that way any more. But the time limit is.

Families can participate for a lifetime total of 60 months. For some, that’s enough. For many, it’s not because the parents can’t get — and keep — a job paying anything like what they need to support themselves and their children.

We can get a handle on the barriers these parents face from the extensions the bill I recently mentioned would provide. They signal the sweeping nature of the time limit in another way too — specifically, that it denies benefits to children, who, of course, can do nothing to support themselves or make their parents more employable.

Different Extensions for Different Situations

Some of the proposed extensions would apply to parents who just need more time to surmount the barriers they face. Others recognize that some parents or substitute caregivers will probably face barriers until the kids are grown — longer, in fact, but they won’t be eligible for TANF any more.

This isn’t to say that we can use the extensions to neatly classify each TANF parent who might qualify. In some cases, it’s hard to say whether a parent just needs another year or so of cash support and services or whether further services probably won’t boost her over the barrier — or barriers — between her and gainful work.

The plural here because we shouldn’t assume that each parent faces only one barrier, as the Urban Institute’s analysis of the District’s TANF caseload clearly shows.

We can nevertheless find in the extensions various reasons families shouldn’t get tossed out of the program because they’ve reached a fixed, across-the-board time limit.

Parents Who Just Need More Time

Some extensions imply barriers parents can often surmount. For example, we find one for parents who’ve experienced domestic violence and are still receiving counseling or other such services to help them cope with the trauma.

Another extension would apply to parents who’d have an unusually hard time finding a job because the local unemployment rate for workers without at least a high school diploma is 7% or higher.

Two extensions would tend to reduce the number eligible for the above. One would apply to teenage parents enrolled in high school or a GED program.

The other would buy time for parents enrolled in a postsecondary education program or a credential-granting program that’s passed muster with the Department of Employment Services.

If TANF is supposed to reduce dependency, as the federal law says, then forcing these parents to quit their studies and seek low-wage, unstable jobs — the only sort most could get — is obviously counter-productive.

Parents Up Against Seemingly Permanent Barriers

Here we find an extension for parents who have severe mental or physical disabilities, but haven’t qualified for either of the two main federal sources of cash support for people too disabled to work.

Another extension would apply to parents with learning disabilities that preclude employment. Still another, which might overlap, is for parents who can’t read at the level expected of eighth graders.

Another would apply to any parent or “caretaker” who’s at least 60 years old — this, of course, because anyone in that age bracket who’s jobless and has been for long enough to hit the time limit will more than likely remain so.

Parents Behaving Responsibly

The bill specifically conditions some extensions on a parent’s compliance with her Individual Responsibility Plan, i.e., the set of activities she’s required to regularly engage in and the services she should receive.

Some parents may not qualify for any of those I’ve highlighted, but are dutifully following their plans. They too would qualify for extensions, as well they should, since they’re doing their best to move from welfare to work.

Families Likely to Suffer Specific Hardships

The bill would provide extensions for families that suffer certain hardships due, at least in part, to the very low benefits they receive — and for others that would suffer them without the benefits.

These include families that are homeless or likely to be. Also reprieved are those that would effectively cease to be families because the children would be put in foster care. This itself is a child protection — and anti-poverty — measure, since we’ve ample evidence that children who grow up in foster care tend to fare poorly.

More generally, all children would have some protection from poverty so dire it’s commonly referred to as “extreme.” Even if their parents didn’t get an exemption, their own share of their families’ benefits would continue until they themselves became ineligible — when they reached legal adulthood, for example.

Reprieves, Not Repeal of the Time Limit

The bill doesn’t extend benefits indefinitely for the families it would protect. Generally speaking, their cases would be reviewed every six months, though the Mayor could set longer review periods — a sensible choice, given the nature of some barriers.

The bill does, however, do more than avert worse hardships. It rolls back benefits for exempt families to what they would be if the DC Council, with then-Mayor Fenty’s apparently hearty approval, hadn’t established the across-the-board time limit.

Both the extensions and the rollback tacitly admit the policy was a mistake. And I suppose that’s the best we can hope for — at least, in the near term.

And near term is where we need to focus because, as I (and many others) have said, 6,000 or so families, including more than 13,000 children will have no TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to change the policy — and thus on a budget that covers the District’s share of the costs.