This post brought to you by Patty Anne, a member of Bread's Consumer Advisory Board and resident of Ward 8. Welcome to the blogosphere, Patty Anne!
I joined the TANF program in 1997, just after welfare reform. Last week, I learned about a bill to create a five-year time limit to the program, and it seemed like a good time to share my story. When I was training to become a firefighter and EMT in 1989, I was hit by a car and seriously injured. I worked odd jobs off and on but continued to have health problems. In 1997, I left an abusive relationship when I learned I was pregnant. I went on TANF to provide for my daughter. The year she was born, we became homeless because of a house fire.
In almost every other state, they tried 5-year-limits for TANF back when Clinton was in office. It didn’t work then for the same reason it wouldn’t work now -- they didn’t give people the tools that they needed to go to work. It was a mess. They called it "Welfare to Work," but they didn’t have enough job training sites and they didn’t help people gain skills. They’d be pushing you out there to get a job, when a lot of people don’t know how to work.
They need to teach people to be self-sufficient, how to be successful off of TANF. For a lot of people, their grandmother might have been on TANF, their mother and aunties and cousins might be on TANF – that might be all they know. But have to open them up to options to better and improve themselves. You can’t be telling them to go out there and work without any training. They don’t even know how to work a job, keep a schedule, or even just communicate. People need life skills training, financial budgeting. You have to figure out what skills they’re best at. You have to give them hope, instead of take all their hope away.
They tell you in the program, “If you get a job, you’ll be happy. Your family will be happy. You’ll be wonderful.” They don’t tell you if you get a job they’ll take your Medicaid and your Food Stamps, and if you don’t have a job that has health benefits, you are stuck. They don’t see that.
I joined the Welfare to Work program and got a job. But then I passed out on the job because of my multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, and my supervisor said I couldn't come back. Eventually, my doctor made sure that I got a medical exception so that I didn’t get sanctioned for not working, but it took me 7 years to get Supplemental Security Income.* I don’t want to be on TANF or SSI. I wish I could have a good job, so I can make good money, so I can take care of my daughter. I don’t want to live in a constant state of trial and tribulation, fighting for my disability benefits, for good housing I can afford, for enough Food Stamps to feed my family.
Give TANF participants the tools they need to survive. Give them a chance to learn new skills and get good jobs. Let’s see what they can do to meet their goals.
For more recommendations for DC's TANF program, see Voices for Change, a report co-authored by Bread's Advocacy Coordinator, Joni Podschun.
*Edited for accuracy.