During a time of budget uncertainty in which funding for programs that serve vulnerable individuals and families is jeopardized, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) and So Others Might Eat (SOME) recently released a report entitled “Voices for Change: Perspectives on Strengthening Welfare-to-Work From DC TANF Recipients.” The authors of this report, Katie Kerstetter of DCFPI and Joni Podschun of SOME, document the strengths and weaknesses of the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program through interviews and focus groups with TANF recipients and service providers throughout the City. The authors conclude that “the progressive components of the District’s [TANF] program have not lived up to their promise because of inadequate implementation.”
Background on TANF
The District’s TANF program provides benefits to impoverished families with children. In order to qualify for benefits, recipients must work or participate in work activities and cooperate with the District’s efforts to establish and enforce child support enforcement orders. The law recognizes and provides exemptions for individuals who, through no fault of their own, cannot cooperate with these requirements.
Legal Aid’s work on TANF
Legal Aid represents TANF recipients who have been denied benefits or whose benefits have been terminated. We also represent individuals who are challenging sanctions that have been wrongfully imposed on them. We have several clients and former clients with proven disabilities who were sanctioned even though the TANF agency – or the third party contractors who provide employment and training services to recipients -- had knowledge of their disabilities.
In order to more effectively reach out to TANF recipients, Legal Aid, in partnership with the law firm of Akin, Gump, Hauer and Strauss, has set up a hotline for TANF recipients to call to get advice and representation to challenge their TANF sanctions. That number is: (202) 887-4170.
The findings of the DCFPI/SOME report are consistent with the experiences of Legal Aid and our clients.
The DCFPI/SOME report provides convincing support for three major flaws of the District’s TANF program that Legal Aid has observed among our client population: (1) TANF recipients who could work or participate in work activities are ill-served by a “one-size fits all” approach that pushes people into the first job they can get regardless of its suitability and ability to enable the family to become self-sufficient; (2) TANF recipients with barriers to work – such as domestic violence or disabilities – are not receiving appropriate services; and (3) the TANF grant is too low to allow TANF families to meet their basic needs. Importantly, these critiques are offered by the TANF recipients who the program is supposed to be serving and too often fails.
Kerstetter and Podschun offer concrete proposals to remedy these flaws. In order to help those who can work become more employable and those who can’t work address their challenges, the District must take a more individualized approach. The TANF agency should improve their assessment processes and refer applicants to better and more appropriate supportive services to address barriers to work. Those who can work should be able to access better quality education and training opportunities. And for all TANF recipients, the grant must increase because $428 a month is just not enough money for a family of three, even with other supports such as housing assistance (which only one-third of TANF recipients receive), Food Stamps and Medicaid.
Unfortunately, in its July proposal to fill gaps in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, the Fenty Administration endorsed policies that would punish TANF recipients for the program’s flaws. The Administration asked the City Council to give it the authority to impose full family sanctions for families who did not (or in some cases could not) comply with work requirements. In other words, a family would lose all of its cash assistance if the parent did not work. Studies have shown that such policies hurt those families who face the most serious barriers to work and harm children. The City Council listened to TANF advocates, including Legal Aid, and many other concerned District residents and denied the Administration this authority.
However, this victory could be short-lived. As the District continues to face economic trouble, the Administration could again propose such draconian policies in the next budget season.
Full family sanctions would harm the one in three children in DC who receive TANF benefits, increase the hardship of already struggling families and ignore the lessons that this report tries to teach us. The 16,000 families who depend on TANF need individualized attention, comprehensive services and adequate financial support so that they can address or overcome their barriers and achieve better outcomes for themselves and their children. That is surely a goal that we can all agree is worth pursuing.