Media and Politics

Minimum Wage Worker Firing Reveals Why We Need More Poverty Reporting

On February 17th, Washington Post reporter Chico Harlan wrote a piece that analyzed the human impact of the 25-cent minimum wage increase in Arkansas. The article prominently featured the experiences of Shanna Tippen, a grandmother who worked in a variety of roles at Days Inn and Suites such as attending the front desk and troubleshooting issues for guests.

While Tippen’s life would improve modestly after receiving the small wage increase, it was clear that the raise would not lift her and her family out of poverty. Even so, she did not make any negative comments about her employer. The story also featured a quote from her manager, Herry Patel, who opposed the small increase because “everybody wants free money in Pine Bluff.” In contrast, other businesses noted that the increase would not force them to lay off employees.

Only one month later, Harlan reported that Tippen had lost her job. She claims that Patel fired her in retaliation for speaking about her experiences to The Washington Post. This event illustrates a real tension in poverty reporting, especially when stories involve vulnerable low-wage workers.

Ben Casselman, who is the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight (an outlet that uses statistical analysis to cover stories), is absolutely right to be concerned. Journalists should consider the impact that their reporting could have on their sources. This is an ethical and strategic consideration – if workers feel that they will experience negative effects, they may be less likely to come forward. In this particular instance, Tippen might have benefited from the protection of anonymity. However, Harlan’s account clearly states that Patel invited him to speak to Tippen, and therefore it would have been difficult to anticipate that she would experience retaliation for her comments.  The blame here lies with the employer, not the reporter. Days Inn and Suites should reinstate Tippen immediately.

If anything, this story demonstrates that we need more coverage, not less. Harlan’s reporting makes an important point in its own right – a small minimum wage increase is not enough to lift families out of poverty. It also avoids elevating incorrect arguments which insist that increases in the minimum wage lead to layoffs.

But its Harlan’s follow-up reporting that makes an even more important point – abusive employers should be held accountable. When Tippen told Harlan that she believed she was fired for talking to him, Harlan gave her a platform to speak out. He also repeatedly followed up with Days Inn and reported on their sustained attempts to dodge his calls. Finally, Harlan made it clear that this action by Patel will have a real impact on Shanna Tippen’s life—with the loss of her job, her money “won’t last past March.”

It seems obvious that Patel is an abusive employer – he threatened to sue the paper when the story came out and blatantly tried to use Tippen’s criminal record to smear her and cast doubt on her credibility. Harlan’s reporting on Tippen’s firing amounts to a public shaming of Patel on a national stage. Thanks to Tippen’s courage to speak out and Harlan’s work, hopefully some employers will think twice about retaliating against employees who talk to the press about low wages and bad working conditions. In fact, increased press scrutiny could decrease abuses across the board.

Increased press scrutiny could decrease abuses across the board.

This is especially key in states like Arkansas, where the media is one of the few institutions with the strength to hold employers accountable. Arkansas is a right-to-work state, meaning that non-union members are allowed to free ride and gain the advantages of union contracts without paying dues. This state of affairs is correlated with weaker unions, and Arkansas’ unionization rates are dismal: only 4.7% of employed workers are members of a union; and only 5.4% of workers in the state are represented by a union (meaning they report no union affiliation but are covered under a union contract).

The law allows employers to terminate employment for practically any reason unless there is an agreement stating otherwise—for example, a union contract—or if an employee is terminated on the basis of age, sex, race, religion, national origin or disability. This creates a Catch-22: the unions that are best-situated to secure agreements protecting employees’ speech have been marginalized by state policies. If Tippen had been unionized, Patel would have thought twice about firing her for speaking out. Instead, he seemingly believed he could retaliate against her without fear of backlash. Without The Post’s efforts, he would have succeeded.

It’s also important to consider how Arkansas’ policies impacted Tippen’s economic situation in the first place. Arkansas’ status as a right-to-work state and the correlated lack of union strength have likely reduced wages.  According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, low-wage workers in right-to-work states earn “approximately $1,500 less per year than a similar worker in a state without such a law.” In addition, in states with policies that inhibit collective bargaining, workers are forced to rely on state and national legislators to lift the wage floor. Given the refusal of legislators to even raise wages enough to account for inflation, earning a non-poverty wage through a legislative path seems highly unlikely.

The worst result of this story, by far, would be for journalists to shy away from giving low-wage workers a chance to speak out. A strong and aggressive media presence that includes protections for sources will reduce the chance of retaliation and encourage workers to talk about their experiences.  We also need strong unions to counter abusive employers while securing better wages and working conditions for all workers.

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Media and Politics

Kavitha Cardoza on Poverty Reporting and ‘Getting to the Why’

Editor’s note: TalkPoverty is committed to lifting up good poverty journalism.  One person whose work we appreciate is education reporter Kavitha Cardoza of public radio station WAMU in Washington, DC.  Kavitha ensures that her audience hears directly from people living in poverty, something we think is far too rare in the media.  She does this not only in her weekly segments, but through a long-form documentary series, Breaking Ground. She is also the reporter behind the popular annual series Beating the Odds, which highlights students who have overcome tremendous obstacles.  At a time when reporters generally aren’t given much time and space to really dig deep on a beat—and certainly not a poverty beat—WAMU also deserves credit for investing in Kavitha and quality poverty journalism.

TalkPoverty had the opportunity to speak with Kavitha about her work.  The interview is cross-posted at BillMoyers.com.

Greg Kaufmann: Do you consider yourself solely an education reporter, or a poverty reporter as well?

Kavitha Cardoza: I think you can’t separate the two. When I first started it was strictly education and it was like test scores, test scores, test scores—and then the more I spoke to people who were actually in the classroom doing the work, it was clear these kids have a lot of challenges that are coming from their outside lives.  And then I realized a lot of it was related to poverty. So I asked my news director to broaden the beat to education and poverty because you can’t separate the one from the other.

Greg: So was this a realization you made here in DC, or in a previous gig?

Kavitha: Here.  But having said that I was very familiar with poverty because I grew up in India and knew a ton of people who were poor. And the one thing I noticed was how easy it was to be separate in the U.S. In India, you would hear these stories all the time: my husband doesn’t pay for the children. I can’t pay for my kid’s school fees. I don’t have a car and the bus didn’t come. I hear these stories here too but the difference is that here it’s really hidden.  If you live in a nice neighborhood you are not likely to see poverty. Office cleaners come overnight. When you go to a McDonald’s or any place paying a minimum wage, people are wearing uniforms. We’ve sanitized poverty. And so when I report, I overwhelmingly get listeners who say, ‘Oh my god, I never knew that was happening.’

Greg: You have been on the beat for four years now.  Is it striking to you that people continue to react to your work in this way—like God, I never knew?

Kavitha: I don’t blame listeners, or viewers, for being surprised. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job as journalists. We are very reactive over here. We cover Katrina, and then how many stories do you find about New Orleans and poverty after that? I heard former Washington Post reporter Katherine Boo talking once—she said we have a tendency to tie everything up with a little bow at the end of a poverty story, and she said poverty reporters do a disservice to readers by doing that. And I think she’s right—because life isn’t like that.

Greg: And so how do you avoid that trap?

There is a range of people within this beat just like any other. You have to show that range.

Kavitha: I have really good relationships with a lot of schools, and principals, and guidance counselors, social workers, teachers, nonprofits…So when I first started they would say, ‘Oh, the media twists things.’ And I would say, ‘Look at my body of work.’  And I would send them examples of my work or ask them to sit in on interviews, I have nothing to hide.  So now it’s easier because I’ve built up some trust that my story is not going to be, ‘Oh, how pathetic these kids’ lives are,’ and it’s not going to be, ‘They are all angels.’ No, there is a range of people within this beat just like any other.  You have to show that range. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem real, and it’s not real. I think what I try to do is get to the why.

Greg: Tell me more about that.

Kavitha: For example, I saw a line in the newspaper once, it said about a third of crime committed on the Metro is done by teenagers. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I should interview some kids to see what’s going on behind the statistics.’  I interviewed this 11-year-old boy. And he talked to me about how he robbed someone’s wallet. As we continued chatting he told me he was wearing his school uniform and did it right outside of his school. And he looks like a little baby at 11—he was like a small, little boy. And not bragging or anything, very innocently telling me about it.  And so I started asking questions—what was going on? And he said, ‘It was getting dark and I didn’t have a way to go home. So I saw this person, and I thought, he can afford like 100,000 bus passes.  And so my friend said just go and take his.’  And the guy identified the boy the next day in school.  So I said, ‘What did your mother say?’  And he said, ‘She was very upset. She said why didn’t you call me? And I said, with what phone and what money?’ And he said she never spoke about it again. So it’s never simple. There’s so much going on, and I think just getting to the why is the best I can do.

Greg: And what are some other powerful moments that really stand out for you and say a lot about your beat?

Kavitha: The more time I’ve spent in schools, the more I see what kids deal with—just a lot of issues: scared to come to school because of gangs, or feeling that they don’t have the right clothes to wear. Like one of the kids told me his mom used to shop for him at Payless and Walmart, and those were not the cool clothes, and so he was always teased… So when people say, for example, ‘poor people—how come they have nice clothes?’ It’s because they don’t want to show that they’re poor. Because the stigma is so great here. It’s such an American story, right? You can make it happen, you can do anything if you believe, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And so if you’re poor, it means you haven’t tried hard enough. That’s the underlying narrative that people know and [so] they want to hide.

Or, one of the kids in [my] Beating the Odds series—her parents were immigrants, and she was living a very comfortable lifestyle. Her dad was a lawyer and then he was caught for fraud and deported. They spent all of their money on his trial. Overnight, she had nothing. She said they had to decide whether to have food, or electricity and water. They chose food. So they had to go to the Chik-fil-A nearby to wash up and brush their teeth and use the bathroom. The mother and the three kids slept in the basement on one bed because it was the coolest place in the house. And I think that’s another thing we don’t think about enough, how fluid poverty can be—people are middle class, and then low-income. It’s not like these rigid structures that people often think it is.

Greg: Do you often find when you go after a story about poverty, you end up getting something completely different than what you expected?

Kavitha:  Always.  There is so much going on inside of people and their backstories.  I remember interviewing an elderly lady when the DC plastic bag tax took effect and she didn’t like it.  And I said, ‘But it’s only 5 cents.’  And she said, ‘If I save up some of those 5 cents I can buy an egg.’  And I remember just stopping and thinking, ‘Oh my lord, this is just a whole different scale we’re talking about here.’

Greg: In addition to ‘getting to the why’, are there other fundamentals to good poverty reporting that you think about?

Kavitha:  I’m always interested in how poverty plays out in very specific, day-to-day ways. You want those specific details where you are like, ‘Oh, I had no idea’—both for you, and your audience.  Like when I did my Yesterday’s Dropouts documentary series [for Breaking Ground], literally every person I interviewed was telling me ‘I forgot my glasses.’  And suddenly I was like, ‘Wait a sec, what’s the glasses deal?’  And so I asked this woman, ‘It’s not your glasses, right?  You can’t read?’  And she said, ‘No, I can’t.’  And so once I realized people are hiding it I started asking, ‘What are the different ways in which you hide it?’  Looking at colors on medicine bottles; or colors on skim and whole milk.  I remember one guy telling me he was sent to buy grits, but that the picture on Quaker Oats and Grits is the same, and so he brought home the wrong thing, and that’s when his wife realized he can’t read.  Lots of people keep it from their spouse.  And I thought, ‘God, how alone must you feel, right?  How invisible and full of shame and sadness.’

And with children I think it’s even harder because they are so small.  So when they talk about like violence, or—things that even adults would have a hard time comprehending—you have to really develop a level of trust.… Like one boy who hadn’t graduated and he was talking about running with street gangs, and he totally accepted that he was making poor choices.  But at the same time he was very proud—in middle school he used to make honor roll, his teachers loved him… And so we got to talking further and I asked, ‘So what happened?’  His twin brother was shot in front of him.  And then it’s like of course he didn’t stick around in high school.   What would I do?  Or thinking about that kid who [robbed] the bus pass—I remember leaving that interview and thinking, ‘What would I have done if I was 11 years old and it was getting dark and I didn’t have a way to go home?’

Greg:  As you have put together this body of work, and have gotten to know so many children and families living in poverty—are there things that you feel like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe as a country we are doing A or B, or failing to do C?’

In the mix of all of the stories you hear about all of these different viewpoints and policy debates, I want you to think of a person.

Kavitha: As a reporter I really believe it’s up to the community to decide what kind of community they want, and what kind of world they want to live in. Personally, yes, to see the amount of poverty, especially in DC, and to see what these children have to deal with—and yet we say, ‘Oh, why don’t they succeed?’  When I hear that I just feel [like] people are operating without all the facts.  And so that’s where I think my role comes in—I will show you a different side that you are not seeing.  I will present people and voices.  Any time you say, ‘People are lazy,’ I’ll show you someone who’s working really, really hard, and it’s just—incredibly hard.  And listen to those stories too.  So in the mix of all of the stories you hear about all of these different viewpoints and policy debates, I want you to think of a person—a mother, a child, a parent who doesn’t have the skills or the training, or is paid low wages…

Greg:  When it comes to the intersection of poverty and education, are there things that you think are missing from the current debate about education reform?

Kavitha: When people talk about education reform—we should have implemented reforms a long time ago.  Because it’s clear our kids are not learning. But the reality is that poverty does affect these kids. And I remember someone said to me many years ago, ‘Well in D.C., we have a social worker and we have a guidance counselor and serve breakfast in school.’  Yes, except you’ve got one social worker for 200 children.  There are a lot of poverty issues that spill into the schools—whether it’s violence, teen pregnancy, hunger, stress of things they see at home, substance abuse, homelessness, obesity. I did a series on obesity, and teachers were talking about how it’s hard to schedule classes. If a class is on the third floor, some kids can’t walk up to the third floor. Suddenly, they have to rearrange classes. Or, I remember this little child saying, ‘I need to go to the bathroom often.’ Because his belly is so big, it pushes down on his bladder. And the teacher is like, ‘No, you can’t go. What is this? You keep going to the bathroom.’ And so there are these kinds of misunderstandings. That’s the challenge of poverty reporting—there is no simple A to B to C line.

Greg: As a DC resident and as a reporter, what’s most stunning to you about the economic divide and the lack of awareness about what people are experiencing?

Kavitha: I think that the lack of awareness goes both ways. A lot of the kids I speak to have no idea that people care west of the [Anacostia] River, or want them to do well in school. I remember once, ‘Beating the Odds’ listeners had called and offered money to help a student. And when I told the student she said, ‘Why would a white person care about me?’  I remember another white lady called me and she said, ‘You know, this story really touched me because I went to Georgetown University, and I met my husband there, and he was living in his car.’ And when I told that to a student I was interviewing she said, ‘That can’t be possible. White people don’t live in cars.’  So there are all these kinds of misconceptions.

But telling these stories through children [results in] tons of listeners calling up and saying, ‘We want to help.’ They want to donate money, time, or volunteer.  After that kid who robbed the wallet for a bus pass, several people called up and said, ‘We want to donate bus passes to him so he can get home.’ Homeless college kids, people are like, ‘We want to invite them for Thanksgiving so they have a place to stay’ or ‘For summer, I want them to have my basement apartment.’ The divide comes when people ascribe fault. I remember doing a story on two kids—one was homeless, lived in a shelter and was doing really well, and talked about how he had to pack up all the time and it was so hard.  A ton of people reached out to help, to give him money for school.  But then the other boy talked about how [in the past] he had assaulted someone, did drugs, went to jail.  He was like 19 or 20 now and had really turned his life around and was mentoring other kids. No one called about him.

Greg: As we enter 2016, potential presidential candidates are already talking about poverty and it looks like it will be a campaign issue.  What are your hopes and fears for how the media might cover it?

Kavitha: I hope that poverty is covered in terms of real people, not just in a theoretical way in terms of policies. I hope people who have solutions and programs that work are highlighted, so people don’t think this is an issue that cannot be tackled. I hope the diversity of poverty is covered, and I don’t mean that it affects all races. But how does poverty play out differently in the suburbs? What is it like for the newly poor versus the generationally poor? The elderly versus children? The working poor? There are just so many aspects to get at this issue.

Greg: Thanks for all of your great work and for talking to us.

You can follow Kavitha Cardoza @KavithaCardoza.  The next Breaking Ground will be out later this year and you can check out previous pieces at breakingground.wamu.org.

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Safety Net

Invest in Women to Reduce Poverty

Women’s History Month is a time when we celebrate the incredible strides of women and girls in our country. But even as we continue to talk about shattering the glass ceiling and breaking down barriers, far too many women have their dreams of college and a successful life dashed by economic adversity.

To examine these struggles, The Women’s Foundation published Poverty Among Women and Girls in the Washington Region late last month. We found that well over 450,000 women and girls live near poverty or below twice the poverty line. Moreover, the cost of living in the Washington region makes it nearly impossible for these families to make ends meet without assistance. For instance, a family of three (one adult and two children) that lives at twice the poverty line earns only $39,060 per year; but in order to meet basic needs, a family of three living in the District of Columbia requires an annual income of more than $85,000.

We also found that there are strong economic disparities based on race, ethnicity, and gender. Across the Washington region, women have higher poverty rates than men. Among adults in the region, Black and Latina women face the highest rates of poverty at 15.6 and 14.2 percent, respectively.

Low levels of educational attainment and poverty are also strongly correlated. In the Washington region, women with less than a high school diploma are six times more likely to be poor compared to women with a bachelor’s degree. Indeed, education remains one of the surest pathways to building a foundation for economic security, but low-income women often experience barriers to access. That’s why proposals such as President Obama’s America’s College Promise which would provide free community college have sparked so much interest from organizations working to end poverty. But in addition to meeting the high costs of post-secondary education, women may also require transportation supports or dependable, quality child care in order to attend classes.

The challenges don’t end there. Once a woman achieves the qualifications and credentials she seeks, she may not earn the pay equivalent of her male counterparts. These factors are compounded when women serve as the sole head of their household, which is the case for more than 60 percent of families in poverty in the Washington region. When child care costs in the District of Columbia are 90 percent of earnings for low-income women, not only are families unable to advance out of poverty, they struggle simply to make ends meet on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, what we see happening in communities across the Washington region is also a national trend. But there are some key steps we can take to help women on the path to economic security, including: adopting critical policies and supports like quality, affordable early care and education; strengthening available safety net programs, and encouraging jobs with family-sustaining wages and benefits. We must also raise awareness about the needs and vulnerabilities of women with the recognition that their economic security isn’t just a “women’s issue.”

Women’s philanthropy has played a critical role in pushing for policy reform; investing in direct service programs to help women access job training, quality early care and education, along with financial literacy and asset building skills; and raising awareness across the country (and the world) for more than 40 years.  Its impact is growing every day. Recognizing that gender matters, we invest in women, and in doing so we impact entire families and whole communities for the better.

You can read the Poverty Issue Brief and get involved here.

Media and Politics

On Conservatives and Poverty: Talking the Talk or Walking the Walk?

Prominent conservatives sure have been talking the talk about poverty and inequality these days.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) famously took a “poverty tour,” earning himself no shortage of praise as a supposed anti-poverty crusader. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has waxed eloquent about what he calls “opportunity inequality.” And former Governor Jeb Bush devoted his first major policy speech as a presidential candidate to the so-called “opportunity gap.”

This sudden concern for struggling families has reached the highest levels of Congressional Republican leadership. In January, in a joint interview on 60 Minutes, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) worried aloud about the growing gap between rich and poor. Senator McConnell even characterized the economic recovery following the Great Recession as a “top of the income recovery,” expressing dismay that “middle- and lower-income Americans are about $3,000 a year worse off than they were when [President Obama] came to office.”

Conservatives’ about-face on inequality, wage stagnation, and how hard it is to get ahead is no doubt newsworthy—particularly following Mitt Romney’s fatally tone-deaf remarks about “the 47 percent.” (Romney himself even performed a dramatic U-turn on the subject earlier this year.) So it’s hardly surprising that it’s garnered a great deal of media coverage of late.

But in marveling at how conservatives seem to have found religion on poverty, inequality, and the plight of the working and middle class, we must not lose sight of the other half of the story—their policies.

It’s not like we don’t have plenty of evidence as to what they really stand for. In addition to their voting records (check out the Shriver Center’s poverty scorecard to see how Members of Congress voted last year on minimum wage, paid leave, and other key policies that support working families), we have their budgets—the clearest statement of their priorities for the country.

As my colleagues Melissa Boteach, Anna Chu, and I wrote earlier this month, if the House and Senate majorities were serious about expanding opportunity and tackling poverty and inequality, their budgets would include job-creating investments in research and infrastructure, as well as policies such as raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, and universal pre-K—not to mention protecting and strengthening key safety net programs such as nutrition assistance and Medicaid.

Yet while Rep. Ryan may spend a lot of time talking about poverty and opportunity, year after year as Chair of the House Budget Committee, his budgets got two-thirds of their cuts from vital programs that help keep struggling families afloat—such as nutrition assistance, housing assistance, and Medicaid—all to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

And despite their newfound talking points on economic opportunity, the House and Senate majorities last week released Fiscal Year 2016 budgets that were just more of the same: deep cuts to nutrition assistance and Medicaid; repeal of the Affordable Care Act; cuts to job training, Pell Grants, Head Start, and more—all to once again protect tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

Remarkably, these policies are printed within the budget proposals alongside grand statements of concern for working and middle class families—e.g. “The economy is not working for many Americans. A lot of people are struggling to keep up or are being left behind altogether.” It makes for a glaring if inadvertent juxtaposition even within the budget documents themselves.

In another recent head-on collision between rhetoric and reality, Jeb Bush last week publicly stated his opposition to the federal minimum wage, barely a month after his speech on the “opportunity gap.” (You read that right: he didn’t just oppose raising the federal minimum wage, he said he opposes having one at all. Sen. Marco Rubio has made similar statements.)

With both parties talking about poverty and inequality these days—and a presidential campaign that is likely to focus on these issues just around the corner—it’s more important than ever to remind our political leaders that actions speak louder than words. Citizens and the media need to look past rhetoric—no matter how pretty it sounds—and focus on voting records, budgets, and policy positions.

That’s where we will find the truth.

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Safety Net

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.