February 17, 2011

City Divests from Supports for Low-Income Families and the Local Economy

The Income Maintenance Administration announced yesterday that TANF cash assistance will be cut by 20% for most households that have received TANF for at least five years. This benefit reduction, which impacts about half of the 16,000 households on TANF, was decided at the last moment as part of the budget shortfall decisions by the City Council in December. It goes into effect April 1.

The TANF program is the primary source of support for women who are raising children and struggling to get and keep good jobs. One in three children in DC is raised with a parent in the TANF program. Beyond Bread blogger Patty Anne wrote about the shortsightedness of removing supports for TANF recipients, and Save Our Safety Net added that the decision was made even as high-income households -- those who have suffered the least in the recession -- were not asked to invest in a strong safety net.

Families face many different situations -- waiting for job training, dealing with a domestic violence situation, recovering from a health problem, looking for work, etc. Regardless of their different timelines, needs, and goals, families need enough cash assistance to stay stable. At an event last month, TANF recipient and Academy of Hope student Ernestine McSwain said, “It helps you to buy food and puts clothes on your children’s back.” Given all the expenses these families face, nearly every penny leads to even more local economic activity. This reduction will put assistance at $342 for families that have been in the program more than five years and do not meet one of three very narrow exemptions. (The benefit is currently set at $428 for a family of three.)

The notice from IMA about the reduction says, “We want to help you find a job so you can leave TANF. If you got a letter to go to a work program, you should go to the program.” Unfortunately, TANF is not set up to support women as they work toward their goals. Program administrators, TANF recipients, and advocates have pushed for better assessments to determine the appropriate mix of education, job training, and support services (like mental health treatment) for each recipient. There’s also an education and job training capacity issue. While additional funding for training was put in the budget voted on last fall, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that “even if every new adult training slot went to a long-term TANF recipient — which is not required under the current plan — only one of eight affected families could participate.”

Suggestions for how the District could better provide opportunity and stability to TANF recipients were identified by TANF recipients themselves in a 2009 report that I authored along with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. While the administration has been receptive to the changes we suggested, very little has been implemented. Why punish TANF recipients for the District’s shortcomings? Instead, our city should invest greater oversight and funding for these programs to ensure we can emerge from the recession with healthy families and a strong local workforce.

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