Written by Westra Miller

Mar 26


When DC’s TANF “Reform” Hurts More Than It Helps

Programs aimed at helping the poor, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, make an easy target. In recent years at least twelve states have passed laws mandating drug testing or screening of TANF applicants or recipients. Although not all of this legislation has withstood judicial scrutiny, these laws reflect the distrust with which some of our nation’s government officials seem to view the parents who rely on assistance to help support their families. Read more →

Jun 13


Legal Aid, Client, and Advocates Lead TANF Talk at D.C. Council

Sharing her family’s story with staff and others at the D.C. Council earlier this week, a Legal Aid client and young mother of two spoke movingly about her efforts to make ends meet on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) while managing a host of other pressures. Our client was at the Wilson Building to appear on a panel organized by Legal Aid, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, SOME, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Children’s Law Center. Dr. Donna Pavetti of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities was also a panelist, speaking extensively on best practices for TANF programs.
Read more →

May 31


DC Council Passes FY 2014 Budget, Provides Additional Funding for Some Key Public Benefits Programs

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

Last week, the D.C. Council passed a $12.1 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2014. The budget addresses the struggles of many District residents by increasing funding for low-income housing, extending extra help to vulnerable families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, and expanding the Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) program for residents with disabilities.  It also provides additional funding to other programs directed toward low-income and moderate-income residents.

To help some of the District’s neediest residents with rising housing costs, the budget will add $1.75 million to the local rent supplement voucher program, which provides rental vouchers to families with very low-incomes. It also directs additional funding for the project-based subsidies available through this program. Moreover, the budget increases funding for emergency rental assistance by $1.5 million. This crucial program helps residents at risk of evictions and homelessness stay in their rental units, or, if necessary, provides financial help to lease a new apartment.  As part of this budget, the Council has also committed $500,000 to expand the emergency rental assistance program to childless adults.  Read more →

Dec 14


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.

Jun 13


TANF Advocates Persuade the Gray Administration and the City Council to Enact Protections for Vulnerable TANF Families

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

As we’ve written about previously (here, here, and here), the Gray Administration and the D.C. Council are in the process of redesigning the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  While there are positive aspects to this redesign—improved services, individualized assessments, better referrals—one aspect about which Legal Aid and others have been gravely concerned is the imposition of steep benefit cuts on individuals who have received TANF for 60 months or more.  As proposed, on October 1, 2012, vulnerable TANF recipients who have likely not received any of these improved services would have seen a 40 percent reduction in their benefits; in other words, a family of three would see their already meager monthly benefits of $428 per month reduced to $342.

Thanks to a coalition of TANF advocates (including Legal Aid, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Bread for the City and the Children’s Law Center) working with Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown, last week, the D.C. Council passed a budget for Fiscal Year 2013 that includes exemptions and extensions to the District’s 60-month lifetime limit for the receipt of TANF benefits. The budget bill also postpones further benefit reductions until Fiscal Year 2014, thus giving families who can work the opportunity to access these improved services before their benefits are reduced.

Moreover, under the new changes passed by the Council, the Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility (POWER)—which now provides monthly cash assistance to parents with a physical or mental impairment—will be expanded to include TANF recipients caring for a family member with a disability, those experiencing domestic violence, or a pregnant or parenting teen in school.  The months that parents experience these types of hardship will no longer count towards their lifetime limit.  Families in POWER who have previously been on TANF for more than 60 months will also have their benefit amount restored to the full monthly amount.   Parenting seniors over age 60, as well as parents enrolled in approved post-secondary education or training programs will also be eligible for extensions beyond the 60-month time limit.

Struggling with medical conditions and suffering through a time limit-related benefit cut which reduced her two-person family’s benefits from $336 per month to $269, Legal Aid client Andrea Brown was getting neither the services nor the financial help that she needed.  After the District found her eligible for POWER, her benefits were restored—making her better able to focus on managing her medical conditions.  Of this experience, Ms. Brown told me, “Being recently introduced to the POWER program, I can truly say that it has been a blessing and I am so pleased that D.C. Council has decided to change the rules. As a former TANF recipient I was grateful to have that program because I really needed the help.”

By delaying the reduction to benefits previously planned for October 2012, the bill also allows families more time to get connected to individualized programs and supports through the Department of Human Services (DHS).  After being screened through DHS, particularly vulnerable families may now be placed in the expanded POWER program.  According to Ms. Brown, “For me, being in the POWER program has been such a relief. I can now focus on my treatment plan and getting my mental and physical health back to where it needs to be so that I can get and maintain a stable work ethic without feeling the pressures to jump into something I am unable to handle.”

Many thanks to all of the Councilmembers who voted in favor of these important changes to D.C.’s TANF program.  Thanks also to the Gray Administration for working with the Council to develop protections for vulnerable families and working to improve the TANF program for all families.  And thanks as well to all the D.C. residents, advocates, and Council staff who worked to advance these changes.  We look forward to the implementation of these provisions, which we believe will allow many more at-risk families to have access to crucial financial and programmatic supports.


Jun 03


DHS Director Discusses TANF in Recent Interview

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

A recent Washington City Paper interview with Department of Human Services (DHS) Director David Berns draws attention to changes to the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.   Although the interview focuses on DHS services for the homeless, Director Berns also discusses the redesign of TANF services and the impending reductions of TANF benefits for many D.C. families.

In October, families who have received TANF benefits for 60 months or more will have their monthly benefit amount cut significantly.  However, many of the families facing these reductions have not yet received the individualized, “modernized” services that DHS is implementing.  Additionally, families at risk of a reduction may be headed by a parent who is not currently able to seek employment due a hardship or vulnerability—perhaps because the parent is a senior, is experiencing domestic violence, or is caring for a disabled family member.

Director Berns does not discuss these types of families in his interview, but legislation proposed by D.C. Council Members Jim Graham and Michael Brown that is currently pending before the D.C. Council does seek to address the needs of these vulnerable families.  Legal Aid supports Council Members Graham and Brown’s plan to use $5.6 million on Mayor Gray’s FY 2013 budget wish list to delay the October TANF benefit reductions.  Doing so will allow all TANF families to benefit from improvements to the TANF program and to get screened for appropriate social and employment services.

A vote on the Council Members Graham and Brown’s TANF Time Limit Amendment Act is planned for June 5, 2012.  We encourage D.C. residents to contact their Council Members to show their support for this important legislation.

May 25


Current Evidence Standards Deny Benefits to Qualified SSI/SSDI Applicants

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty recently released a report that raises concerns about the evidence standards applied to qualified applicants for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.  The report, Improving Access, also discusses the shortages that certain communities, such as the homeless and those in rural areas, face in locating medical providers acceptable for SSI/SSDI applications.

Social Security Administration (SSA) standards currently limit the medical sources considered to be acceptable support for SSI and SSDI applications.  Although these rules are meant to protect against fraudulent applications, they often work to prevent vulnerable SSI and SSDI applicants from receiving disability benefits.  For example, a doctor’s diagnosis would be accepted as medical evidence by the SSA, but a nurse practitioner’s would not.  This practice does not reflect the reality of the health care available to many of our clients.


As our health care system changes, it has become increasingly common for individuals to receive the majority of their primary physical and mental health care from nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants, and licensed clinical social workers—rather than from physicians or specialists.  We at Legal Aid have seen this first hand, as it is not unusual for a client to report having weekly meetings with a therapist, but only brief once-a-month visits with a psychiatrist.  Often, it is these regular, non-physician providers who are best positioned to make detailed observations about the symptoms and effects of an individual’s medical condition.  Despite this, many SSI/SSDI applicants find that their social workers’ records are not sufficient to support their applications for disability benefits.  Many are required to submit to additional examinations by doctors hired by the SSA, which creates further delay in an already long application process.

SSI and SSDI benefits serve as crucial income sources for individuals who are unable to work due to a disability.  A successful application for these federal benefits can also translate to more than just financial help.  Recipients of SSI typically qualify for Medicaid and recipients of SSDI are entitled to Medicare.  For SSI and SSDI recipients, access to these insurance programs can be a key component of federal disability benefits.  Indeed, by failing to give appropriate weight to diagnostic evidence provided by non-physicians, the SSA denies more than financial benefits.


Apr 23


Legal Aid Testifies at Hearing on Proposed FY 2013 DHS Budget

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

Last Thursday, I was among the many advocates, citizens, and government officials testifying at a D.C. Council Committee Hearing regarding the Mayor’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013.  Although the Mayor has promised to “protect our most vulnerable residents” in his budget, his proposal relies heavily on cuts to programs in housing and human services.  My testimony focused on restoring $5.65 million to the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  This restoration would delay an impending benefit reduction for families who have received cash assistance for more than 60 months.  Currently, longtime TANF families will face a benefit reduction of up to 40% in October 2012—despite the fact that many have not yet been offered appropriate job training and other services through DHS.  My testimony also discussed the Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) program, an important financial bridge for District residents waiting for approval of their applications for federal disability benefits.  IDA provides $290 per month cash assistance to residents with disabilities.  In recent years, the program’s budget has been reduced.  We asked that the Council restore $2.42 million to IDA to replace the federal recovery funds that were taken from the program in a previous year’s budget.

 Written testimony on these issues can be accessed here.

Mar 29


Legal Aid Testifies to Amend TANF Time Limits

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

Last Thursday, I and other advocates testified before a D.C. Council Committee in support of the “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Time Limit Amendment Act of 2012.”  This bill, which was recently introduced to the D.C. Council by Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown, would change D.C.’s TANF laws to allow the Department of Human Services (DHS) more time to provide improved services to families who have received benefits for more than 60 months.  It will also give vulnerable families extra time to address certain barriers to employment.  My written and oral testimony highlighted the reasons why it is critical that the Council enact this bill or a similar bill.         

Currently, all families who receive D.C. TANF for more than 60 months face a series of reductions to their monthly benefit amounts, followed by the eventual termination of their benefits.  If the newly-introduced bill is not passed, approximately 6,000 families on TANF will see their monthly benefits decrease by 40% in October 2012.  A family of three, otherwise entitled to $428 per month, will be asked to make do with $257 per month this fall.  These reductions apply to the majority of families who have exceeded the TANF time limit, regardless of whether DHS has properly connected them with job-training and other support services.  In recent months, DHS has begun to offer redesigned services to TANF recipients, but the delivery of these new services is slow and only an estimated 2,000 families have received the individualized assessments that are the cornerstone of D.C.’s redesigned TANF program.       

The TANF Time Limit Amendment Act corrects some of these concerns by postponing benefit reductions for a year so that more families will be able to get matched to services before their benefits are impacted.  Within 12 months of terminating benefits, DHS would be required to assess a recipient and provide supports to help the recipient’s family transition from TANF.  Families that have already had their benefits reduced due the imposition of time limits would have their benefits restored to the full payment level through October 2013.  Families facing hardships—such as caring for an ill or disabled family member or recovering from domestic violence—could receive exemptions from the time limits for certain months.  Finally, the bill also extends the time limits up to 24 months for recipients who are enrolled in approved post-secondary or  job-training programs.   

Written testimony on these issues can be accessed here.

Mar 08


Legal Aid Testifies on ESA Policies and Performance at D.C. Council Committee Hearing

Westra Miller, Staff Attorney

Last Thursday, I gave written and oral testimony to the District of Columbia Council Committee on Human Services regarding the Economic Security Administration (ESA).  My testimony focused on the recent redesign of the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the underutilization of a separate assistance program targeted for parents with disabilities, the implementation of the Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) benefits program, and performance issues at ESA itself.  The hearing was well-attended both by advocates and by District residents speaking on their own behalf. Legal Aid’s recommendations included the following: 

Provide long term TANF recipients with additional time to be assessed and receive services before the District cuts their benefits dramatically.  As part of a redesign of the TANF program, ESA has taken steps to improve the TANF program by providing better supports and services to increase the employability of TANF parents.  Although these programmatic improvements are promising, they are in tension with another new rule that created time limits for families that have received TANF for more than 60 months.  Long time TANF families now face a series of steep reductions to the maximum amount of monthly benefits they can receive.  The first wave of reductions is already in place, and come October 2012, many families will have their benefits reduced by 40 percent.  However, these reductions will be implemented before most families have had any opportunity to benefit from the improvements promised by ESA.  Therefore, families should have additional time to receive services and supports that could help them become employable (or determine that they are not employable) before they are subject to such a dramatic benefit reduction. 

Create exemptions for and extensions of time to the benefit reductions.  The District, unlike many other jurisdictions that have adopted time limits, only allows a few narrow exemptions from the time limit.  Legal Aid joins other advocates in the belief that families who are particularly vulnerable (such as survivors of domestic violence) and those who are following the rules and working to achieve employability should be exempted from the time limits or gain additional time to improve their employability. 

Improve the POWER program.  One of the few exemptions to the TANF time limits that currently exists is the Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility (POWER).  POWER provides TANF benefits to families headed by a parent or caretaker with a mental or physical health condition.  Families in the program have to participate in treatment and training programs, but do not have to work for 20 or 30 hours per week and are not subject to the reductions in their benefit levels.  Legal Aid is concerned, however, that ESA staff is failing to identify and refer many TANF recipients with disabilities to POWER.  TANF families are not able to apply for POWER on their own and many are unaware of its existence.  I encouraged ESA to provide more clarity about how families are referred to and assessed for POWER as well as to allow families to apply to POWER themselves.  

Increase funding for and improve management of the IDA program.  Another program, Interim Disability Assistance, provides temporary cash assistance to individuals who are on the path to receiving Social Security disability benefits.  When a federal disability application is approved, the federal government reimburses the District for the IDA assistance paid out.   Without more transparent management of this program by ESA, we are concerned that fewer residents with disabilities will be able to access the program and that the program’s future viability will be at stake.  In the last couple of years, the future of IDA has become increasingly uncertain due to both funding reductions and problems with the program’s administration.  Despite a rise in the number of pending SSI and SSDI applications, fewer residents are now receiving IDA assistance each month.  High demand and limited funding has led ESA to create a waitlist for IDA which defeats the self-reimbursing nature of the program; additionally, the lack of rules governing the wait list has created confusion among ESA staff and our clients about the program.  I recommended increased funding for IDA and more transparent management of the IDA waitlist.    

Improve ESA operations.  Legal Aid recognizes that increased need for public assistance programs places pressure on ESA staff.  As with any agency of its size, there will be inevitable mistakes or staffing issues.  Despite this, we remain concerned about ESA’s performance.  Our clients report a range of difficulties in their experiences recertifying for medical assistance, scheduling appointments at ESA, and in contacting agency staff.  I testified that ESA expand its staff, if possible, and promote the informal resolution of disputes with ESA customers.

 Written testimony on these issues can be accessed here.