09/20/2011 01:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

Hasty TANF Cuts Would Place Neediest Families at Risk

The welfare program for chronically unemployed District residents and their families supported by the government's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) needs reform. Yet changes in benefits and support services to transition long-term TANF families to self-sufficiency must be driven by sound policy, not budget savings. The District must find the right balance between the responsibilities of families and individuals and sustaining the safety net for families most in need of assistance.

These actions are important because they deal with the government's ability to move people from dependency to independence, consequently providing a solution to the issues of chronic poverty.

Because hasty changes to the TANF program risks removing critical aid for neediest before adequate alternatives are in place, I opposed cuts to TANF benefits for families who had been receiving support for over 60 months. The reductions in assistance were supposed to save the District approximately $4 million.

As part of legislation passed by the D.C. Council, the D.C. Department of Human Services implemented a substantial redesign to the TANF program. Among the modifications are a strict enforcement of the 60-month time limit, after which point benefits would be phased out. Recipients must comply with individual responsibility plan that outline their steps to transition to work and can suffer reductions if these are not completed. These sanctions are important for those long-term recipients who have not sought work. But for many motivated TANF recipients there is not adequate support to transition to employment, while others are mentally and physically disabled.

Since the act was passed, approximately 5,900 families and 13,000 children (more than one half under nine years old) were immediately affected. As the reductions impact additional families with each passing month, the Department of Human Services and the D.C. Auditor estimate a total of 14,000 families and 25,000 children (17,600 children under nine years old) may have their benefits reduced.

We have tried to track the impact on those families whose TANF assistance was reduced. The DC Auditor conducted a Human Impact survey as a result of my amendment to the bill that required the reductions. The study covered the last week of June, 2011 and included a sample of 35 families whose benefits were reduced. Two months after the reductions were implemented many families began to notice unfavorable changes in children's performance at school, expressed the inability to participate in after-school programs, and raised concerns about children's health and involvement with the juvenile court system. While it is difficult to draw a direct correlation between the reduction in TANF benefits and changed children's behaviors and well being, the changes are notable. A follow-up survey of the same 35 families and an additional 35 families will be conducted in October - November, 2011.

To aid in the transition from TANF, DHS plans to launch a Universal Service Delivery Model. Key elements need to be fully functioning in order for the measure to be successful. First, DHS needs an assessment mechanism that can classify TANF recipients. Absent this important tool, administrators cannot distinguish which residents are unable to work because of circumstances beyond their control. These segments of the population need to be treated differently, with a set of programs and support specifically designed to serve their needs. An assessment tool has been developed, though it is untested.

Second, DHS needs to demonstrate an ability to assist TANF beneficiaries who have identified training as part of their plan to transition to work. DHS has made arrangements to work with a set of contractors who are only paid if they successfully assist in the transition to employment for beneficiaries. There are a set of questions about this support that remain unanswered. What if the necessary training exceeds per person spending limit? There are also concerns about the qualifications of those serving as TANF caseworkers. At present, there are a broad range of community stakeholders who can serve as caseworkers, though some may not provide adequate assistance.

Third, TANF recipients who are approaching the end of the 60-month period need tailored support and guidance to address the issues that may have prevented them from finding employment. An in-depth study of Ramsey County, Minnesota's effort to provide transition recipients off TANF found that there were significant, unique, and in many cases insurmountable obstacles to employment. These findings were similar to the results of the survey conducted by the D.C. auditor. Transitioning recipients require intensive case management to address these challenges.

There are other administrative issues. At present, families who have their financial support from TANF cut are still eligible for other city services designated TANF beneficiaries. Yet the current registration process marks anyone who is not receiving financial support as outside the TANF program. There is also uncertainty about when recipients will reach the end of the 60-month window, as many recipients were not notified about the limit when enrolled in the program.

My committee will closely monitor the implementation of the Universal Service Delivery Model. DHS is expected to release a final version of its proposed new sanctions policy at which point the Council will have 45 days to review and make changes as necessary.

Until the concerns about the Universal Service Delivery Model are addressed, the TANF reforms that have been proposed risk exacerbating the demands on other city agencies and placing a greater burden on the budget. Ultimately, the measure of successful TANF reform is not based on reduced TANF rolls, but the number of people who transition to meaningful, long-term employment and appropriate assistance for the disabled who cannot work. Addressing the issues of assessment, job placement, and other administrative concerns will be imperative to ensuring the success of government reform efforts.