Making Justice Real

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

Legal Aid Testifies at Council Hearing in Opposition to Proposed TANF Policy That Would Leave Many Families Without Benefits and Services

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

Earlier this week, I joined a coalition of other advocates at a roundtable before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services to testify in opposition to regulations proposed by the Department of Human Services (DHS).  The proposed regulations, which the Council can vote to approve or disapprove, create a full-family sanction policy for families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).  Under the proposed regulations, parents who do not comply with program work or training requirements will see their benefits progressively reduced based on a four-level system of sanctions.  At the two highest levels of sanctions, families will receive $0 in monthly benefits, lose access to other critical services associated with TANF, and be required to reapply for TANF if they want to receive future benefits.

Although we support DHS’s efforts to improve the District’s TANF program by providing targeted, high quality services to families in need, we oppose this full-family sanction policy.  Such a policy is harmful to both children and parents as it limits access to important services and programs exactly when families most need that help.  From child care vouchers to Medicaid and food stamps, many other District programs are linked with TANF and may be temporarily or permanently lost when families are required to reapply for TANF.  Children, who have no role in their parents’ non-compliance, are needlessly punished.  Parents, often struggling with barriers to employment such as mental illness or domestic violence, are cut-off from both economic and programmatic supports with few safeguards.

Further, the currently proposed policy omits many necessary details, such as how sanctioned families will move from one level of sanction to the next.  These types of missing details increase the risk that workers at DHS or DHS vendors will use their discretion to apply sanctions inconsistently and unfairly.  Although some parents will use the fair hearing process to enforce their legal rights, others will not be able to do and will unfairly lose benefits.

A copy of our testimony is available here.  After hearing the concerns expressed by Legal Aid and others, the Council’s Committee on Human Services, under the leadership of Councilmember Jim Graham, removed the most harmful provisions from the regulations, including deleting the highest level of sanction and eliminating the requirement that TANF families re-apply for benefits after receiving a high-level sanction.  This compromise version will be considered by the entire Council early next week.

Although Legal Aid continues to oppose full-family sanctions, this compromise version improves on the regulations proposed by DHS and we encourage its passage. We urge concerned District residents to contact their councilmembers to support the compromise version of these regulations.  The Council will likely be voting regarding the proposed regulations next Tuesday.

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