May 16, 2011

Tattered TANF

One in three children in DC is in a household in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. That shocking statistic points to serious systemic problems, but it also demonstrates the great potential of TANF as a poverty-fighting program. Unfortunately, that potential may soon be squandered.

One of the budget cuts before the DC City Council right now is a reduction of $8 million in local funding for the TANF program. This represents two changes. First, it would reduce benefits by another 20% for nearly all families in the program more than 5 years. Benefits for a mom and two children would go from $428 at the start of the year to $257. Second, it would remove entire households from the TANF program if the parent doesn’t comply with the work requirement, rather than just sanction the adult and continue to provide benefits to the children.

We are in favor of transitioning more TANF recipients off the caseload, but we believe the approach chosen by Mayor Vince Gray would result in lasting harm to parents and children, rather than supporting TANF recipients in meeting their goals for education, stable employment at a living wage, and safe housing.

Currently, TANF recipients are not offered the support services or training they need to transition successfully off the program. The Income Maintenance Administration (IMA), the agency in charge of implementing TANF, is working to better assess the needs of TANF applicants so they can be matched to appropriate supports and to expand job readiness, training, and education to offer a spectrum of services. The Department of Human Services estimates it will take 18 months to do assessments of those who are already in the program for over 60 months. By this time, the TANF recipients most in need of help will have seen their checks whittled away to $107 a month, if they are even still in the caseload.

Again, 1 in 3 children is in the TANF program. Other states have small programs relative to the need because they have punitive policies that leave families disconnected and unsupported. DC’s TANF recipients may feel unsupported, but at the moment they are at least connected to the program. Every six months, they walk through the door to recertify. If the services were improved, that could be the perfect time for an intervention that connects TANF recipients to an array of services tailored to their needs.

Instead of investing in our economic future by focusing on the long-term potential of TANF recipients, the administration wants to cut roughly half the caseload from the program, starting with those who have been on TANF the longest and have the most barriers to work. It is an enormous missed opportunity to lose touch with these families. And it will end up costing the District more money in the long run, for expensive emergency services and remedial assistance for children growing up in poverty.

Why not give the intervention of assessments and better services a try and see what impact it has on the caseload? What if instead we use the opportunity of unemployment and the recession to invest in families that want good jobs but aren’t equipped for them right now?

If you oppose this budget cut, we need you to tell the Council. Join us Wednesday from 11:00 am - 1:00 pm at the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW. We'll learn more about the cuts and their impact from the people who are using these programs to survive, and we'll engage the Council to ask them to make better choices. If you can’t come, please send an email to the Council now. Contact me for more information: 202-587-0524 or

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