As we’ve written about previously (here, here, and here), the Gray Administration and the D.C. Council are in the process of redesigning the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. While there are positive aspects to this redesign—improved services, individualized assessments, better referrals—one aspect about which Legal Aid and others have been gravely concerned is the imposition of steep benefit cuts on individuals who have received TANF for 60 months or more. As proposed, on October 1, 2012, vulnerable TANF recipients who have likely not received any of these improved services would have seen a 40 percent reduction in their benefits; in other words, a family of three would see their already meager monthly benefits of $428 per month reduced to $342.
Thanks to a coalition of TANF advocates (including Legal Aid, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Bread for the City and the Children’s Law Center) working with Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown, last week, the D.C. Council passed a budget for Fiscal Year 2013 that includes exemptions and extensions to the District’s 60-month lifetime limit for the receipt of TANF benefits. The budget bill also postpones further benefit reductions until Fiscal Year 2014, thus giving families who can work the opportunity to access these improved services before their benefits are reduced.
Moreover, under the new changes passed by the Council, the Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility (POWER)—which now provides monthly cash assistance to parents with a physical or mental impairment—will be expanded to include TANF recipients caring for a family member with a disability, those experiencing domestic violence, or a pregnant or parenting teen in school. The months that parents experience these types of hardship will no longer count towards their lifetime limit. Families in POWER who have previously been on TANF for more than 60 months will also have their benefit amount restored to the full monthly amount. Parenting seniors over age 60, as well as parents enrolled in approved post-secondary education or training programs will also be eligible for extensions beyond the 60-month time limit.
Struggling with medical conditions and suffering through a time limit-related benefit cut which reduced her two-person family’s benefits from $336 per month to $269, Legal Aid client Andrea Brown was getting neither the services nor the financial help that she needed. After the District found her eligible for POWER, her benefits were restored—making her better able to focus on managing her medical conditions. Of this experience, Ms. Brown told me, “Being recently introduced to the POWER program, I can truly say that it has been a blessing and I am so pleased that D.C. Council has decided to change the rules. As a former TANF recipient I was grateful to have that program because I really needed the help.”
By delaying the reduction to benefits previously planned for October 2012, the bill also allows families more time to get connected to individualized programs and supports through the Department of Human Services (DHS). After being screened through DHS, particularly vulnerable families may now be placed in the expanded POWER program. According to Ms. Brown, “For me, being in the POWER program has been such a relief. I can now focus on my treatment plan and getting my mental and physical health back to where it needs to be so that I can get and maintain a stable work ethic without feeling the pressures to jump into something I am unable to handle.”
Many thanks to all of the Councilmembers who voted in favor of these important changes to D.C.’s TANF program. Thanks also to the Gray Administration for working with the Council to develop protections for vulnerable families and working to improve the TANF program for all families. And thanks as well to all the D.C. residents, advocates, and Council staff who worked to advance these changes. We look forward to the implementation of these provisions, which we believe will allow many more at-risk families to have access to crucial financial and programmatic supports.