Making Justice Real

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

Bad Direction for TANF in the District of Columbia

Monica Bell, Liman Fellow

Yaida Ford, Staff Attorney

When the D.C. Council’s 2010 session drew to a close on December 21, 2010, it sent a mixed but mostly negative message about its approach to the safety net for the District’s most impoverished families. The Council closed the session by passing the Fiscal Year 2011 Supplemental Budget Support Act of 2010 and voting on several pieces of legislation, including the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act.

The Supplemental Budget Support Act instituted significant changes in TANF policy that will take place throughout 2011. For the first time, the District effectively imposed a time limit on TANF recipients, cutting the benefits of families who have been on TANF for more than 60 months by 20 percent. For affected families of three, the maximum benefit will drop from $428 per month – already just 28% of the federal poverty line – to $342 per month. Legal Aid has testified in the past about the wrongheadedness of this approach, particularly in light of the District’s failure to adequately assess, train, and connect TANF recipients to critically important services. This change will go into effect on April 1, 2011, and Legal Aid is working to inform our clients who may be affected by this change.

The Council also voted to permit the Department of Human Services to implement a three-tiered sanctions policy that would eventually cut an entire family’s TANF benefit if the adult does not comply with TANF work requirements (also known as “full-family sanctions.”) This represents a dramatic change from the current sanctions policy which removes only the adult from the TANF benefit for non-compliance; now children will pay a steep price for their parents’ actions. Considering that an astounding 1 in 3 District children currently rely on TANF for their most basic needs, many District children will face serious deprivation as a result of this Council action. This is a shame, especially considering that ample research has found that neither time limits nor sanctions actually get more TANF recipients into the workplace.

A more hopeful development was the Council’s passage of the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act. This bill mandates that DHS make certain changes to their work program so that TANF parents who want to pursue education and job training can receive those services and become employable. The law amends the old TANF statute to require mandatory assessments for all TANF parents when they apply for TANF and it defines the specific work activities that allow TANF parents to pursue education and job training. Finally, the law includes outcome performance measures for the DHS so that the agency can be held accountable for properly assessing TANF parents and referring them to support programs in which mysteriously low numbers of TANF parents are enrolled. The changes authorized in this bill have been proven much more effective in employing TANF recipients in other jurisdictions.

Yet, even as the Council acknowledged the TANF system’s brokenness, it nonetheless instituted policies that will punish poverty-stricken families and children for the failures of the current system. The Council should have waited for DHS to implement needed reforms before adopting punitive measures such as time limits and full-family sanctions. Time limits will be imposed retroactively beginning April 1, 2011 and the new sanctions policy will go into effect on October 1, 2011. (In contrast, the reforms required by the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act have no exact date for implementation. )

In these economic times, advocates’ work to protect TANF for families that need it is more critical than ever. Because the District faces even more budgetary challenges in the FY 2012, the Council may be tempted to target safety net programs like TANF again. We urge the Council to move in a more positive direction this legislative session by approaching family economic security programs with an eye toward research-based effectiveness and improvement of the lives of the most vulnerable.

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