The District of Columbia Council held hearings on October 5, 2009 regarding the City’s proposed use of federal stimulus money. (Read my testimony here).
The District could be accessing about $46 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Families (TANF) funds through the federal stimulus legislation that could be used to support the TANF program and other human services needs such as shelter and homelessness prevention. However, the District has accessed little of that money.
In an era of diminishing local human services dollars, there is no excuse for leaving federal funds on the table. However, the question of what to do with the TANF program is larger than just one of drawing down available federal dollars.
The District’s TANF program is broken. First, the District does an inadequate job of assessing and addressing the work barriers of TANF applicants and recipients; and second, the TANF vendors do an inadequate job of connecting people who can work but can’t find employment with work activities that would help them prepare for work. Finally, the TANF cash grant is woefully inadequate.
In order to achieve the shared goal of using the TANF program as a means of preparing individuals for employment, the District will have to develop a plan of comprehensive reform. The TANF program must do a better job of adequately assessing and addressing families’ needs. Trained staff should assess applicants and recipients to determine whether a particular head of household can participate at federally mandated levels. Families who can work but can’t find employment need quality education, training and support services (including child care and transportation) so that they can eventually join the workforce. And the District must acknowledge and adequately respond to the needs of families who face one or more barriers to employment including disability, domestic violence or the need to care for a disabled or chronically ill child.
While stimulus dollars are an important source of funding for these reforms, additional funding sources will need to be identified. But regardless of the funding source, it is the types of thoughtful investments described above – and not solely the imposition of sanctions and incentives as enacted in the recent FY 2010 Budget Support Act – that will improve the TANF program, thus allowing it to better meet the needs of the District’s most vulnerable families.