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Advocates Call on Mayor Not to Implement Punitive TANF Sanctions

Supervising Attorney

Supervising Attorney

As we’ve discussed on this bog previously, Legal Aid joins other legal services and anti-poverty advocates in opposing changes to the TANF program that would harm poor families. We are very concerned that the District’s 2011 budget proposal could include full family sanctions – termination of benefits to families who, possibly through no fault of their own, are not in compliance with TANF requirements. Many of the families who could be subject to these sanctions are struggling with physical or mental disability, domestic violence and other challenges. A letter signed by Legal Aid and 39 other organizations and individuals was sent to Mayor Fenty, the head of the Department of Human Services and others in the District government stating our firm opposition to such a proposal. The letter is copied below.

December 21, 2009

The Honorable Adrian Fenty
Mayor of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20004

Dear Mayor Fenty:

As you begin the difficult task of preparing your FY 2011 budget proposal, we, the undersigned organizations, are writing to strongly urge you not to include any proposals to increase sanctions or implement new administrative requirements that would make it harder for low-income families to access the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

More than 16,000 DC households — and one in three children — rely on the TANF program for support. In the midst of the current economic downturn, more families are turning to TANF for job training, supportive services, and financial support. The program is responding to the increased demand for services, and we need to make sure that it continues to be available to families who are working to transition back to work.

As part of the July budget gap-closing proposal, the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget included a proposal to increase sanctions for TANF families that had not met at least half of the work requirement after six months. Language in the Budget Support Act also would have allowed DHS to implement increased sanctions, including the authority to cut families off completely from benefits if they do not meet the work requirement after a certain period of time. That proposal was not included in the final FY 2010 budget, and we urge you not to include a similar proposal in the FY 2011 budget for the following reasons:

  • Increasing sanctions does nothing to improve TANF’s poor-quality employment services and assessment process. The employment readiness services within DC’s TANF program generally are limited to the most basic resume and job search assistance and focus on moving recipients into employment as quickly as possible. As a result, many TANF recipients find these services unhelpful, and most TANF recipients who become employed can find only low-wage work (the average wage is $9 per hour).

Additionally, there is evidence that many recipients who would qualify for work exemptions or supportive services that could make them more employable are not receiving this assistance. For example, while an estimated 20 percent of TANF recipients have experienced domestic violence, fewer than one percent of recipients received a waiver under the Family Violence Option in FY 2008. Survivors face multiple barriers to employment including sabotage from their abusive partners, lack of adequate child care, and physical challenges due to injuries sustained from abuse. As these barriers increase, a survivor’s ability to obtain employment is diminished. This would have a devastating impact on survivors of domestic violence — of which there may be as many of 75,000 in the District.

Similarly, while the rates of disability among the TANF population are significant, the POWER program for individuals who can’t participate because of a disability has only about two hundred participants. • Increased TANF sanctions are unlikely to result in greater compliance with work requirements. Studies of other states find that sanctions do not lead to improved compliance, largely because the recipients most likely to be sanctioned are those with the greatest personal problems and barriers to work.

  • Further sanctions would increase hardship for children in low-income families. The District’s TANF benefit — $428 for a family of three — is already low compared with the city’s high cost of living and benefits in other comparable cities. Lowering this amount will leave families with even fewer resources to meet their basic needs and will place low-income children in more desperate circumstances. Compared to TANF families who are not sanctioned, sanctioned households more often have trouble paying for rent, food, medical expenses, and utility bills.[1] Some studies have also found increased rates of child abuse and neglect among sanctioned families.[2] 
  • Families would lose access to benefits. The Department of Human Services (DHS) already has the authority to reduce families’ benefits if they do not participate in the required number of hours of work activities.Other states have instituted practices, such as mandatory orientations and full-family sanctions, that have made their programs less effective at lifting children out of extreme poverty. In the 1980s and early 1990s, before many of these policy changes were implemented, about 80 percent of families nationwide who were eligible for AFDC (the precursor to TANF) were enrolled in the program. In 2005, only 40 percent of eligible families were receiving TANF.[3] If these changes are implemented in DC, many families could be diverted or removed from the TANF caseload and left without any form of assistance.

Instead of pursuing increased sanctions, we implore you to instead strengthen the TANF program by improving its assessments, job training, and supportive services. A full description of these recommendations can be found in a recent report published by SOME, Inc. and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.   We urge you and your staff to work with TANF recipients, policy experts, and advocates to redesign the TANF program to provide services that truly help recipients gain the skills needed to leave welfare for work.

We thank you for considering this matter.

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