Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Absent Council Action, 13,000 Kids to Lose an Important Lifeline

Today, the D.C. Council will hear from District residents, policy advocates, agency employees, and other stakeholders on the performance of one of D.C’s largest government agencies, the Department of Human Services (“DHS”).

Sure to be on the agenda is DHS’s plan to address the rapidly approaching TANF Cliff — a District plan to cut families from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”) program when parents or caretakers reach 60 months of participation in TANF during their adult lifetime. If the plan goes on as scheduled, over 6,000 families including 13,000 children will be impacted by the measure this fall.

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Last year Agency Director Laura Zeilinger successfully staved off the Council’s plan to institute the cuts in 2015 – which would have given DC the distinction of adopting some of the harshest TANF rules in the nation – by acknowledging that DHS is still undergoing much needed improvements to its employment services.

Councilmembers Nadeau, Silverman, May, Todd, Orange, and Bonds recently introduced the DC Public Assistance Amendment Act of 2015 (B21-0515) to smooth the cliff by creating exemptions and extensions to TANF time limits.

Many TANF policy advocates support the bill, noting that families should be able to take advantage of DHS’s employment services overhaul: “The Department of Human Services has eliminated wait times and is focused on improving services. These are significant improvements,” says Kate Coventry of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “But families who have received more than 60 months of TANF assistance have not received high-quality services for the vast majority of their time on TANF.”

Advocates are also deeply concerned about the consequences of cutting District kids from the most basic of resources. One in four children in the District live in poverty. That figures doubles to one in two children in Wards 7 and 8 according the US Census Bureau.

What Does the D.C. Public Assistance Amendment Act of 2015 Do for Kids in Deep Poverty?

  • Continues to provide benefits after 60 months for parents and their children who face domestic violence, a severe disability, homelessness or other barriers that have gotten in the way of employment.
  • Continues to provide benefits after 60 months for families who are following all program requirements but are still unable to find a job.
  • Supports our poorest children in the TANF program, even if their parents cannot otherwise qualify.
  • Fosters accountability for DHS and parents by requiring regular check-in meetings to ensure that families facing hardship are protected and provided additional supports when needed.
  • Educates families on TANF about the 60 month time limit; regularly informs families about how many months they have remaining, and what exemptions and extensions are available to them.

While the modest cash assistance fails to remedy that issue, the funds can offer basic financial stability while parents battle barriers to employment. “A family must have minor children living at home in order to qualify for DC TANF,” says Kimberly Waller at the Children’s Law Center. “It is a program that is meant to prevent children from living in deep poverty. And for many families, TANF payments are the only remaining means of meeting their children’s most basic needs, like keeping the lights on, having heat in the winter months, and staving off hunger.”

Without at least minimal cash assistance, more of the District’s children could end up homeless. That’s due, in part, to the fact some TANF families rely on the generosity of friends and extended family to keep a roof over their heads. Since these friends and family are often living on razor thin margins themselves, the multi-family household can become unsustainable without contributions to additional household expenses, like utilities.

Mayor Bowser, who has championed homelessness prevention as a major policy priority, has yet to publicly comment on the bill. Time is ticking for 13,000 kids who could soon find themselves even deeper in poverty.

How You Can Help:

Individuals can start by contacting your ward’s Councilmember and Mayor Bowser’s office. Let them know that the fate of D.C.’s kids are important to you. Tell them you that you support the DC Public Assistance Amendment Act of 2015 because you want to ensure that D.C.’s families have a chance to succeed.

Organizations and law firms can also sign up to support DC Public Assistance Amendment Act of 2015. With prior approval, your organization can be listed on advocacy materials (like policy memos or letters to the Mayor and Council), or listed on the (forthcoming) campaign website.

Please email me if you would like to get involved in future advocacy actions on TANF or other public benefits issues.

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