Making Justice Real

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

Mayor’s Proposed Budget Cuts Harmful To DC Residents Living In Poverty

Last Friday evening, the Mayor announced his recommendations to fill the unexpected gap the District of Columbia budget.   The Mayor has proposed significant cuts that will disproportionately affect people living in poverty, including housing subsidies, TANF, and job training.  The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute has compiled the following list of cuts to safety net programs:

$2 million for rental supplement
$750,000 for Housing First
$5.4 million for adult job training
$2 million for literacy
$1.5 million for grandparent caregivers
$500 k for rapid housing (this cuts half of the enhancement)
$7.7 million cut to TANF benefits for poor families with kids
$1.8 million for legal services to poor/poverty loan program
$3.5 million taken from HPAP special purpose fund
$340,000 from Office of Victims’ Services
$4 million from libraries
$1.9 million “supported work program” within income maintenance administration
$575,000 from school mental health programs
$5 million from “community health administration”
$3 million cut to neighborhood investment fund
Cut to health care contract at DC Jail
$2.5 million cut in grants for the Children Youth Investment Trust Corp
$5 million from the Dept of Disability Services 

These cuts will be harmful to families and individuals living in poverty.   They will increase hunger, homelessness and despair.  We hope that the District Council will develop strategies that will spread the burden of meeting the budget gap across all incomes, and not concentrate the cuts on services for the lowest income residents. 

It is notable that the only increase in revenue in the Mayor’s proposal was an additional tax on phone bills for the 911 and 311 systems.   In many states, increased revenue has been combined with cuts to spread the pain. 

While we oppose all cuts to the safety net, we are working particularly on two issues: 

1.  Temporary Assistance to Needy Families 

The Mayor’s budget proposal would give the Department of Human Services the authority to impose greater sanctions on TANF recipients including full family sanctions that terminate aid for an entire family.  The Mayor estimates $6.5 million of savings from his TANF proposal, including the enhanced sanction authority.  Much of these savings would likely come from terminating aid to the District’s poorest children in families whose parents face substantial work barriers.

Many families are sanctioned because they can’t participate in TANF work activities as a result of work barriers.  Research shows that sanctioned families typically  are families that face significant barriers to participation.  Several analyses of sanctioned welfare recipients have shown that sanctioned families have lower levels of education than non-sanctioned participants, higher incidents of health related barriers to work – including mental health problems and domestic violence and had less work experience than non-sanctioned families.  Other studies show that the more barriers a family faces, the greater the likelihood that they will be sanctioned. 

Sanctioned families and others who have left welfare without work suffer hardship. Research found that “[s]anctioned recipients are more likely to experience material hardships than their non-sanctioned counterparts.  Material hardships TANF recipients face include borrowing money to pay bills or falling behind on payments, not having enough food, problems paying for medical care, and experiencing a utility shut-off.”

Children suffer when their parents are sanctioned.  One study found that infants and toddlers in sanctioned families had a 30 percent greater risk of having been hospitalized since birth and a 90 percent greater risk of being admitted to the hospital after visiting the emergency room.  Another study found that preschoolers and adolescents in sanctioned families were at a greater risk for behavioral problems and lower test scores than children in families that hadn’t been sanctioned.

The District could better engage families and increase federal work participation rates by hiring specially trained staff and creating programs that adequately respond to the needs of recipients who face the greatest challenges.  The District’s current welfare program does not sufficiently address the needs of TANF recipients who have multiple barriers to work.  In order to better serve these families, the District needs to invest in staff who are trained to work with hard to serve families, provide better assessments, and connect families with education, mental health and other supportive services that would help them work or participate in work activities.

By imposing full family sanctions, the District would turn its back on more than ten years of progressive welfare policies.  Since welfare reform became law in the District, the TANF program has been a safety net for its most vulnerable children and families.  The Mayor’s proposal would allow for a radical departure from that history.

 2.  Civil Legal Services Funding

Among the recommendations is a cut that hits very close to home.   The Mayor proposes a cut of $1.8 million for civil legal services and loan forgiveness.   These programs are administered by the D.C. Bar Foundation and the proposal is a 50% cut from the funding approved by the District Council this spring.  The proposed cut could have a huge impact on the operation of legal services programs across the District. 

The following illustrate the importance of the funds:

*  There is an increase in the demand for civil legal services caused by the recession, increased unemployment and increased numbers living in poverty.  For example, in 2008, Legal Aid took on 44% more cases than the year prior and are on pace to for similar numbers this year.   The only reason they are not seeing an additional increase is that staff lack the capacity to handle any more cases.  Our intake is up but we are turning more people away.   On some days we have had more than 40 potential clients come to our offices seeking help.

*   The legal services network is already contracting.  IOLTA funding is down $1 million and revenue from foundations and law firms in shrinking.   The Consortium of Legal Services Providers polled its members and initial results show that providers have lost 17 lawyers and 8 other line staff (paralegals/social workers) over the last year.   Several programs have dipped deeply into reserves.  

*  The Mayor’s proposed cuts will cost the legal services network between 18 and 20 lawyers.   If each lawyer can handle 50 matters in litigation and 100 matters for assistance short of representation each year, 3000 District residents will not get necessary legal help that would have been available but for the cut.  (If you figure that the average family size is four, more than 12,000 residents will be affected).

*  Legal services save the District money.  While we have done no local study, studies from other jurisdictions found that for every dollar spent on legal assistance, the government saves between $4 and $7.   The following are a few examples of why this is the case:

*  Access to counsel in DV cases improves safety.  As a result DV survivors are less likely to be victimized and there will be reduced costs for public safety, medical treatment, job loss and interruption of education for minor children in the home.

*  Preventing avoidable evictions reduces homelessness and shelter and other costs.

*  With regularity we help children who are receiving medical treatment through the Alliance (a 100% DC funded program) enroll in Medicaid (a 70% federally funded program).   Each case saves the District thousands of dollars each year. 

If you want to contact the Council, the contact information for each member is available at http://www.dccouncil.washington.dc.us/councildirectory

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