February 7, 2011

Restoration at Service Centers: Ideas from the Grassroots

The TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program is designed to do big things: improve education levels, help people get the training they need to become employed, refer people to domestic violence services, and teach budgeting, among other things. There is a great deal of potential in the program, but it’s goals are not being realized. As a TANF recipient off and on the last few years, I know that people like me see the daily problems and we also see where changes can be made.

Beyond Bread has covered the need for better job training and education options, and making sure the cash assistance is enough to make ends meet. Those are costly changes. There are also many small changes that the Income Maintenance Administration (IMA) could make to improve the program, starting with providing people with information on how the program works. When you’re organized, all other things fall into place. There are inexpensive solutions that would both improve TANF recipients’ experiences in the program and allow the city to pinpoint what areas are ineffective.

The area I live in places me at the Anacostia Service Center on 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE. Like other IMA Service Centers, they use a number system to try to maintain order. When you come in, you get a number and then wait to see whichever staff person is available for that day. It doesn’t matter if you need to ask a simple question, drop off a copy of your birth certificate, tell someone of a domestic violence situation, recertify, apply for a child care voucher, or update your address. Everyone gets a number and waits to be seen, and sometimes the lines are so long that people have to go home and come back the next day.

What I recommend as a solution for becoming more organized is a number + color system, to apply a different color for different categories. Example: blue for medical, tan for new clients, red for termination (sanction), orange for food stamps, green for cash, yellow for recertification. For miscellaneous paperwork, those documents could be black and white. This could be as easy as changing the background color of the forms.

To start this change, IMA should review how documents are processed, the time spent on each case, how the recipients provide proper documentation, and the time period for processing cases. All these things should be measured against what’s best for the client, because this is who it’s about.

Here’s another idea: Place one to two computers within the service centers for clients to use for personal updates, copying documents, and recertification. This will relieve the staff of some responsibilities and give the recipients the opportunity to regain their self-respect.

Please listen to these great ideas about how IMA centers can genuinely help us meet our goals. If more TANF recipients were given adequate information and asked our opinions, we could improve the system.

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