When DC’s TANF “Reform” Hurts More Than It Helps

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.




A Movement to End Poverty

It’s going to take a movement to end poverty.

I didn’t know that when I started doing anti-poverty work in 2001.  I was teaching at American University, and I volunteered to deliver food to people living in poverty in Washington, D.C. In apartment after apartment, I witnessed something that shook me: Families living with empty cupboards and refrigerators. Children living in homes without any furniture. Mothers and babies sleeping on the floor.

That was a life-changing moment. I went home and founded A Wider Circle out of my one-bedroom apartment, initially collecting furniture from people I knew to give to people I didn’t know, and leading life skills and professional development workshops in shelters. Since that first year, we have furnished 22,000 homes throughout the Washington region and led 3,500 workshops.

I recognize that it takes more than a bed, or educational programming, to get out of poverty. It takes comprehensive job training. It takes connecting people with skills and education with other people who have not had the same opportunities. It takes a visible grassroots effort that includes all segments of society—government, business, nonprofits, schools, faith and civic groups, and communities—connecting and creating change together.

In short, it takes a movement.

A movement made up of people like Dr. Leonard Brock, who is leading “ROC the Future” – Rochester, New York’s community-wide initiative dedicated to ensuring that all children receive the opportunities and support they need – from birth to career. Dr. Brock has the respect and credibility to lead the charge; the son of a single mother, he grew up in public housing in Rochester’s worst neighborhood and went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees.

“The challenges we face are systemic,” he says. “Silos do not work to address systemic problems. We need all hands on deck.”

It takes leaders like Scott Miller, founder and CEO of Circles USA. Scott believes “the responsibility for both poverty and prosperity rests not only in the hands of individuals, but also with societies, institutions, and communities.” His model matches low-income families with community members who volunteer to serve as “allies,” supporting families as they become self-sufficient.

It takes more than a bed, or educational programming, to get out of poverty. It takes a movement.

The movement needs allies in the business community like Kelly Caplan. Community Outreach Coordinator at Washington Gas, Kelly is committed personally and professionally and understands what’s needed for major change to occur. She knows the first step toward our nation ending poverty is “believing that it is possible.”

Sixteen-year-old Sejal Katherine Makheja believes. Two years ago while volunteering at a D.C. nonprofit, she met Juan, who talked about his struggles finding a job. Sejal found his situation hard to comprehend until her father explained that many people don’t have advantages–such as access to a high-quality education–that she has. So she told her parents she wanted to help Juan get an education. Her family paid for Juan to go to community college, where he earned his certification in construction. Soon after, he landed a fulltime job.

“That small gesture changed his life,” Sejal says. “I want to replicate that again and again.” And she is, through her organization, The Elevator Project, dedicated to “lifting the financially disadvantaged one person at a time.”

Many think that ending poverty is unrealistic or downright impossible. Start where you can. Donate a bed. Or professional clothing to help someone get a job. Donate your time as a mentor. Join people living in poverty and coalitions of professionals from diverse fields from around the country at the March 28 National Conference on Ending Poverty.  You will leave the conference more connected with people devoted to ending poverty, and more equipped to take action.  As Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman–who will keynote at the conference–writes in So Rich, So Poor: “Our side has one main weapon… Our weapon of mass construction when we use it – is us.”

In October, I met Maseray Bundu when she enrolled in our week-long job training program. The single mother of three is doing everything she can to become self-sufficient, despite the many obstacles she faces–from raising a child with asthma to finding a fulltime job that pays a living wage. Her email address reflects her eternal optimism. It reads: “EverForward.”

It’s time to make sure Maseray and so many others in poverty are no longer struggling alone. It’s time to build a movement to end poverty.

Ever Forward.



As Affordable Rent Disappears, Lawmakers Propose Slashing Funds that Could Help

Last week, the Washington Post reported on a D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute study which found that there are virtually no apartments available on the open market in the nation’s capital that are affordable for low-income households. The number of apartments that rent for less than $800 fell by 42 percent in the last decade, from more than 57,700 in 2002 to 33,400 in 2013; and the number of houses with rents between $800 and $1,000 also showed a significant drop during that timeframe.

But even as we are learning more about the magnitude of the rental crisis in the streets surrounding the U.S. Capitol and across the nation, many Republicans in Congress want to prevent Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from funding the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund, two programs that provide resources to help build and preserve affordable housing nationwide.

The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 directed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to place a sliver of their earnings each year into the two funds. But before those contributions ever began, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) had to bail out the mortgage giants due to the financial crisis. As part of the rescue activity, FHFA suspended contributions to the funds.

Now that Fannie and Freddie have regained their financial footing, FHFA Director Mel Watt has lifted the suspension and given the go-ahead for the mortgage giants to resume payments into the funds. But for conservatives in Congress, even this small measure of assistance to poor families is too much. When Watt announced his decision near Christmas last year, the Republican-controlled House Financial Services Committee deemed it “a lump of coal to every taxpayer.”

Members of Congress should look out their office windows more often, or better yet, visit surrounding neighborhoods.

In January, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) introduced legislation that would prevent Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from directing money to the two funds until they are out of conservatorship. The bill is almost identical to one he authored a year ago, which garnered 22 cosponsors, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). As lawmakers deliberate the Republican budget proposal this week, it’s likely we will see efforts to end the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund resurface.

If members of Congress are ignoring what’s happening right in their own backyard, then they probably are ignoring what’s happening across the country, too. The cliff-dive in rental affordability is not limited to our nation’s capital. Data shows that more than half of all renters in the nation spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing (and most extremely poor households pay more than half of their meager incomes), leaving precious little for groceries, medication, transportation, and other necessities of life. For example, in California – Rep. Royce’s home state – there is a serious housing affordability crisis, with average monthly rents about 50% higher than the national average.

Any moves to cut the funding for the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund ignore the dire need for them across the country right now. Unfortunately, it’s a trend with Congress. Our lawmakers have repeatedly cut rental assistance programs, even though the number of households in worst-case scenarios – living in abysmal housing or having to use more than half of their income on rent – has only increased over time.

Members of Congress should look out their office windows more often, or better yet, visit surrounding neighborhoods – then maybe they would get a clue about our affordable housing crisis.  Passing legislation to slash these two funds would not only make the housing situation worse, it would be an insult to hard-working families who are already struggling to make ends meet in every state and district.



Mississippi Judge Bars Public Defenders from Representing Clients

Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) is asking the Department of Justice to investigate recent events in Hinds County, Mississippi, where a judge is refusing to allow public defenders to represent their clients in his court.

Judge Jeffrey Weill seems to believe public defenders should be more deferential to him and less passionate in the representation of their clients.  Apparently disapproving of the zealous advocacy of one public defender, Judge Weill removed her from all of her cases and, according to Public Defender Michelle Harris, to identify any specific behavior that violated the lawyer’s professional obligations to her clients, or the court.  In doing so he has disrespected the right to counsel for the poor. When the Hinds County public defender office refused to abandon those they are charged with serving, and collectively resisted Judge’s Weill’s attempts to further interfere with their representation of clients, he held an attorney and the head of the office in contempt.

This case is yet another example of local authorities disregarding the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.  It should leave every person who is concerned about justice troubled.  Wielding power to interfere with fundamental rights of the least powerful is exactly what our Founding Fathers feared the most.  Few things could be less consistent with what our Constitution demands of those given the privilege to preside as judge.  Many of us are a paycheck away from needing the services of the public defender should we be wrongly accused of a crime.  The citizens of Hinds County are fortunate to have a public defender willing to fight for their constitutional rights.  They should demand their judges do the same.

Our Founding Fathers valued liberty above all else, and in the 6th Amendment guaranteed every individual a lawyer to ensure a fair fight, whenever liberty was at stake. In a nation committed to equal justice, the public defender is essential to ensuring that one’s ability to protect his or her fundamental rights does not depend on income.

For every person accused of a crime who can pay for a lawyer, four more are too destitute to do so.

Sadly, public defenders are often not given the respect and support they need to protect the most vulnerable among us.  Since our poorest citizens are prosecuted and punished more than those with means, true justice remains elusive.  For every person accused of a crime who can pay for a lawyer, four more are too destitute to do so.  Public defenders are left to fight back against a system that has accepted an embarrassingly low standard of “justice” for the poor.

No one should respect the critical role of defense counsel more than a judge.  Judges should be committed to protecting the most marginalized and supporting those who advocate for them.  But some judges, like Judge Weill, apparently think the courtroom belongs to them, rather than the public.  They think they can dictate how a lawyer defends her client and somehow still be impartial.  That kind of behavior is a great threat our democracy.

This case is particularly shameful, but it is hardly unique. Across the country we see judges who abuse their power at the expense of the powerless, and only when public defenders are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve can this situation be corrected.




Targeted Investment Could Reduce Poverty in NYC By 69 Percent

From 2009-2013, one in five New Yorkers lived below the poverty line. This amounts to 1.7 million poor people living in New York City households. Research by the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) shows that the City’s poverty rate declined slightly between 2005 and 2008 but then increased between 2008 and 2012. The CEO analysis also shows that poverty would have been even higher without government policies such as refundable income tax credits and housing subsidies.

The question we are now faced with in New York City (and around the country) is this—how do we enhance or create new government policies to further reduce poverty? A groundbreaking new study finds that in fact we could reduce poverty in New York City by as much as 69 percent.

Commissioned by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, and UJA-Federation of New York, the study examines the potential impact that select antipoverty policies—alone and in combination—could have in reducing poverty in the City. This partnership is born out of our shared values and traditions of caring for people in need; the unparalleled reach of our combined networks in helping all New Yorkers; and a fundamental belief in the God-given dignity and potential of every human being.

We examine policy reforms related to transitional jobs, minimum wage increases, earnings supplements, tax credits for seniors and persons with disabilities, increased SNAP benefits, guaranteed child care subsidies, and increased housing vouchers.  An analysis by the Urban Institute tested the policies for their individual impact, as well as the effects of three different policy combinations with varying levels of participation.


The individual policies reduced poverty by 1 percent to 26 percent, but when the policies were combined they had a far greater effect: Combination 1 in the chart above reduced poverty by 44 percent, to 12.1 percent; combination 2 reduced poverty by 54 percent, to 9.8 percent; and combination 3 reduced poverty by 69 percent, to 6.7 percent.


The evidence is clear. Public policy must be at the center of efforts to fight poverty, and as a nation, we need to adopt policies that invest in low-income workers and their families while also removing barriers to economic stability. Ending poverty will require a significant commitment of city, state, and federal resources.  But there is also ample evidence that these investments not only improve the lives of individuals and strengthen their communities, they also ultimately reduce government spending.

There is plenty of talk these days about the importance of reducing poverty and improving economic mobility.  Our new study shows what a comprehensive plan might look like and how we can get the job done.