Programs aimed at helping the poor, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, make an easy target. In recent years at least twelve states have passed laws mandating drug testing or screening of TANF applicants or recipients. Although not all of this legislation has withstood judicial scrutiny, these laws reflect the distrust with which some of our nation’s government officials seem to view the parents who rely on assistance to help support their families.
In many ways, the District of Columbia has been an outlier in its approach to TANF, a federal block grant program meant to provide income assistance, job training, and other services to low-income families with children. When other states instituted time limits on how long a family could receive benefits, DC resisted and used local funds to allow families to stay in the program as long as their need remained.
However, when budget considerations made that approach less feasible, the District instituted a series of graduated cuts that reduced benefits for families’ receiving TANF for five years or more. At the same time, the District engaged in a massive redesign effort to improve the services available to parents. It recognized that the services needed to be better tailored to meeting the needs of all parents receiving TANF—including those who faced numerous barriers to work, ranging from disability and domestic violence to a lack of work experience.
But the redesign also had a catch—the families who had received benefits for five years or more would lose all access to the TANF safety net on a date certain. That date certain is October 1, 2015. This October, 6,000 District families—including 13,000 children—will lose their primary income source. In the months that follow, more families will lose their income too as they reach the five-year TANF time limit.
The withholding of TANF cash help and services comes despite evidence that single parents in the District—the local population most likely to rely on TANF—face a higher rate of unemployment than their childless counterparts or parents with partners. At the same time, studies in other states have found that parents who have stayed on TANF for many years are more likely to have significant barriers to employment, including low cognitive functioning, limited levels of education, and limited English proficiency. The economic landscape in the District and pressures of single parenthood, combined with the barriers known to limit many long-term TANF participants, suggest that parents affected by the impending TANF cut will have a difficult time finding permanent, stable work that allows them to replace even their small monthly TANF benefit. (It’s also important to note that even a small amount of cash assistance can make a significant difference in a family’s ability to cover basic expenses, such as buying necessary personal care items or school supplies for children.)
Moreover, the changes promised in the TANF redesign are not fully available to the parents who most need them. Many of the parents subject to the full loss of benefits in October have spent months or years without being offered meaningful services by the DC government. Wait times for these improved services can be as long as 10 to 11 months. At the same time, those especially vulnerable parents who may not be ready to work due to other demands in their lives, such as managing the effects of domestic violence or caring for a sick family member, are without a clear path for stopping the clock on the time limits.
Although District law outlines exemptions from the TANF time limits for families experiencing certain types of hardships, the government has yet to propose regulations or publish any publicly-available policies to explain how and to whom these exemptions should be applied. Without timely access to employment-related services, long-time TANF recipients who could find and maintain work if given the right assistance are effectively shut out of the reforms. Likewise, without transparent, detailed standards for exemptions from the time limits, parents who could qualify may be overlooked by agency staff and unaware of their own rights.
In this environment, it is difficult to see how cutting families off of TANF in October will have anything but negative consequences. Parents who lose eligibility for TANF will lose not just cash and services, but possibly also their priority access to subsidized child care. Approximately 2,000 children between the ages of 0 and 3 are expected to be affected by the upcoming TANF cut. Their parents are even less likely to find work if child care is no longer available at low or no cost. The loss of income could put further stresses on the District’s already burdened systems for responding to homelessness and child welfare concerns while perpetuating the District’s notable level of income inequality. There are also longer-term effects of this kind of deep poverty, including physical and mental health problems for children who are continually exposed to high levels of stress.
The DC government still has time to mitigate some of the effects of its flawed TANF time limit policy, if it acts soon. It can change its TANF law to allow parents who have exceeded the program’s five-year time limit to remain able to access benefits and services until it can create a more reasonable approach to addressing these families’ needs. With a delay of a year, the government could direct funds towards reducing the wait times for all TANF parents seeking to connect to employment-related services, so that the parents who could possibly benefit from this kind of help are realistically able to do so. Government officials could also use this extra time to streamline and formalize the process of identifying families who should be exempted from the limits due to employment barriers.
The District’s long-term vision for its TANF program must recognize that reform does not have to penalize people in our city who are least likely to be able to bear its costs.