TANF Time Limit Would Put Survivors of Domestic Violence at Risk
domestic violence
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Julia Lee, Senior Staff Attorney

As a cost-cutting measure, the Mayor’s office has proposed dramatic changes to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (or “TANF,” the District’s cash assistance program for very low-income families.)  One feature of Mayor Gray’s budget is a time-triggered cutoff for people who have received TANF benefits for longer than sixty months over the course of their lifetime.  Benefit reductions have already been instituted.  We are concerned that Mayor Gray’s time limit proposal would be seriously detrimental to survivors of domestic violence and their families. (The vast majority of the clients Legal Aid helps to secure domestic violence protective orders are TANF recipients.) 

D.C. law waives the TANF work participation requirement for recipients who are noncompliant because of family violence, or because fulfilling the requirement would impair the recipients’ ability to escape domestic violence or put recipients at risk of further violence.  See D.C. Mun. Reg. 29-5823.  This carve-out recognizes that when survivors are struggling to remove themselves from abusive situations, the TANF work program can be too much to handle and can place survivors and their families in real danger.  Most states have similar policies. 

Currently, the Income Maintenance Administration (IMA), which administers TANF, does a poor job of identifying recipients who have been affected by domestic violence.  Only 1 TANF recipient was receiving the waiver in late 2010 even though the Urban Institute has estimated that approximately 1 in 5 D.C. TANF recipients are domestic violence survivorsand more than 1 in 7 have suffered severe domestic violence within the most recent year.  The process for receiving the waiver is confusing and convoluted, so many domestic violence survivors now are receiving sanctions (having their benefits reduced) because their family situations preclude them from being able to meet the extensive work activity requirements.  Changes underway at IMA might help the agency do a better job of identifying survivors to connect them with services and help them avoid sanctions, but those changes will not take effect for several months at the earliest. 

If the proposed time limit is enacted as is, recipients will be cut off even if they are receiving the domestic violence waiver.  For example, a survivor of domestic violence who would be in danger if her abuser found out her location and who, for that reason, never received job training or was delayed in being trained would still be cut off TANF once her time was up.  IMA could say to these survivors, on one day, “You’re fine; you don’t have to worry about going to job training if it will put your or your children’s safety at risk,” but on the next day, “You’ve been on too long; you’re cut off.”   

The potential effect of the TANF time limit on domestic violence survivors is yet another piece of evidence that the Mayor’s office has not considered the full consequences of its rush to cut TANF and other human services programs.  If a TANF time limit is enacted, the policy should be crafted in a way that would not penalize survivors of domestic violence for circumstances that are beyond their control.  More broadly, any time limit should be constructed so that it more closely mirrors time limits in other states: it should be prospective, not retroactive; it should include extensions and extensions for people who are complying with work requirements and people who cannot meet work requirements; and it should be narrowly tailored so that it causes the least amount of harm possible to low-income children and families.  The current proposal meets none of those criteria. 

The fate of TANF, and our clients who rely on it for the most basic subsistence, is now in the hands of the D.C. Council.  Please contact Councilmember Jim Graham, Chair of the Committee on Human Services, and ask him to stop the current TANF time limit proposal.  You can reach Councilmember Graham at (202) 724-8181 or jim@grahamwone.com.


Recent Making Justice Real posts on TANF:

Mayor Gray’s Proposed Budget Cuts Would Hit Legal Aid Clients Hard

TANF benefits to be cut for some families as of April 1, 2011. 

Bad Direction for TANF in the District of Columbia

Legal Aid opinion piece published in Washington Post

Legal Aid’s Thanksgiving Message


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