November 10, 2010

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In my conversations with people trying to make ends meet with public benefits like Food Stamps and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), I often hear the old saying, “One step forward and two steps back.” There are a lot of reasons why using the safety net can feel that way. One is that people spend time in transit between different service providers, only to wait in long lines for assistance, as you saw in our post last week about utility assistance. Another comes from eligibility requirements that suddenly remove people from programs as their income increases. Imagine making another 50 cents an hour and suddenly losing your health insurance and having to pay out of pocket. There are also programs that aren’t meeting the goals and needs of participants.

This month, the City Council is entertaining two bills that would reform the District’s TANF program. TANF is the primary safety net for single mothers who have exhausted all other means of support. It can also be a gateway to education, job training, affordable child care, substance abuse treatment, and health care. One of the two bills would take our city a step forward, and one would take us way, way back -- to 1996, the year of Welfare Reform.

The TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act of 2010, introduced by Councilmembers Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Michael Brown (At-Large), would accomplish a few things we’ve blogged about here at Beyond Bread:
- Expand the range of job training and education services that TANF recipients can utilize,

- Assess each recipient’s barriers to work, interests, and goals; and make referrals to both support services and meaningful job training and education opportunities, and
- Require DC’s Income Maintenance Administration to track both referrals to the above programs and outcome measures such as employment and income at 12 months after leaving TANF.

These changes would put TANF recipients on the right path to meeting their goals for employment.

And here’s how we would backslide: the District of Columbia Public Assistance Amendment Act, introduced by Councilmembers Marion Barry (Ward 8) and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7). If passed, this legislation would limit TANF recipients to 60 months (5 years) of TANF benefits. Even worse, the current language would make families ineligible for all public benefits - no Medicaid, no child care, no food stamps, no homeless shelter.

Research has shown that these harsh tactics are not effective at encouraging work. They are likely to result in higher rates of child poverty, with many families disconnected from any form of support. With our progressive programs and policies, DC has mostly bucked the national trend that’s reduced the number of eligible families served by TANF from 84 to 40%. That’s right: Nationally, sixty percent of families in deep poverty who could be on the program are not.

Our city has chosen not to go down this path for good reason. These harmful policies harm families, take dollars out of the local economy, and create costs in other parts of the city’s budget such as child welfare, homeless services, and education.

The timing of this bill is disturbing. It couldn’t come at a worse time. Job opportunities have yet to rebound from the recession and the city is on the cusp of meaningful reforms.

We encourage Councilmembers Alexander and Barry to take the long view on helping their constituents. What programs and policies can help people be ready to respond to the return of the recession, poised to take advantage of sustainable jobs connected to a career path? And, in the meantime while they are still on the program, what supports do they need to maintain their housing and provide for their children?

Let’s consider how we can invest in these families, so our whole city can take steps forward together.

Want to get involved?
- Email Monica Bell ( to sign your organization on to this letter.
- Contact your Councilmembers to let them know your views on these two pieces of legislation. Tell them: “Vote yes on Bill 18-1007 and no on Bill 18-1061.”
- Testify at the hearing on the Barry/Alexander bill -- November 15 at 11:00 a.m. at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW. Email Vivian McCarter ( to sign up to testify.

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