Last Thursday, I gave written and oral testimony to the District of Columbia Council Committee on Human Services regarding the Economic Security Administration (ESA). My testimony focused on the recent redesign of the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the underutilization of a separate assistance program targeted for parents with disabilities, the implementation of the Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) benefits program, and performance issues at ESA itself. The hearing was well-attended both by advocates and by District residents speaking on their own behalf. Legal Aid's recommendations included the following:
Provide long term TANF recipients with additional time to be assessed and receive services before the District cuts their benefits dramatically. As part of a redesign of the TANF program, ESA has taken steps to improve the TANF program by providing better supports and services to increase the employability of TANF parents. Although these programmatic improvements are promising, they are in tension with another new rule that created time limits for families that have received TANF for more than 60 months. Long time TANF families now face a series of steep reductions to the maximum amount of monthly benefits they can receive. The first wave of reductions is already in place, and come October 2012, many families will have their benefits reduced by 40 percent. However, these reductions will be implemented before most families have had any opportunity to benefit from the improvements promised by ESA. Therefore, families should have additional time to receive services and supports that could help them become employable (or determine that they are not employable) before they are subject to such a dramatic benefit reduction.
Create exemptions for and extensions of time to the benefit reductions. The District, unlike many other jurisdictions that have adopted time limits, only allows a few narrow exemptions from the time limit. Legal Aid joins other advocates in the belief that families who are particularly vulnerable (such as survivors of domestic violence) and those who are following the rules and working to achieve employability should be exempted from the time limits or gain additional time to improve their employability.
Improve the POWER program. One of the few exemptions to the TANF time limits that currently exists is the Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility (POWER). POWER provides TANF benefits to families headed by a parent or caretaker with a mental or physical health condition. Families in the program have to participate in treatment and training programs, but do not have to work for 20 or 30 hours per week and are not subject to the reductions in their benefit levels. Legal Aid is concerned, however, that ESA staff is failing to identify and refer many TANF recipients with disabilities to POWER. TANF families are not able to apply for POWER on their own and many are unaware of its existence. I encouraged ESA to provide more clarity about how families are referred to and assessed for POWER as well as to allow families to apply to POWER themselves.
Increase funding for and improve management of the IDA program. Another program, Interim Disability Assistance, provides temporary cash assistance to individuals who are on the path to receiving Social Security disability benefits. When a federal disability application is approved, the federal government reimburses the District for the IDA assistance paid out. Without more transparent management of this program by ESA, we are concerned that fewer residents with disabilities will be able to access the program and that the program’s future viability will be at stake. In the last couple of years, the future of IDA has become increasingly uncertain due to both funding reductions and problems with the program’s administration. Despite a rise in the number of pending SSI and SSDI applications, fewer residents are now receiving IDA assistance each month. High demand and limited funding has led ESA to create a waitlist for IDA which defeats the self-reimbursing nature of the program; additionally, the lack of rules governing the wait list has created confusion among ESA staff and our clients about the program. I recommended increased funding for IDA and more transparent management of the IDA waitlist.
Improve ESA operations. Legal Aid recognizes that increased need for public assistance programs places pressure on ESA staff. As with any agency of its size, there will be inevitable mistakes or staffing issues. Despite this, we remain concerned about ESA’s performance. Our clients report a range of difficulties in their experiences recertifying for medical assistance, scheduling appointments at ESA, and in contacting agency staff. I testified that ESA expand its staff, if possible, and promote the informal resolution of disputes with ESA customers.
Written testimony on these issues can be accessed here.