12/05/2012 09:45 am ET

Reimagining Welfare to Work

By Mary Otto
Street Sense

Outside the window of the city Office of Work Opportunity on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE there is a tree with orange leaves and a bird fluttering. And beyond, the Anacostia River is glinting in the gray autumn morning.

Vocational Development Specialist Teri Winston, wearing a neat suit, is stationed at her desk. Seated in front of her is Candice Banks, mother of three, dressed in a simple sweater, black trousers and flat shoes. Banks has received welfare, officially known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for the past three years. Some of the city’s 17,700 welfare beneficiaries have been getting welfare checks for much longer.

But time is running out for them all. A year ago, the District of Columbia implemented a 60-month lifetime limit on welfare benefits. It was a measure that many jurisdictions put in place years ago, after President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act back in 1996. But in the District, the step came as a shock. More than 6,000 families who had been on the roles for more than five years saw their monthly stipends cut. The average monthly payment for a family of four went from $523 to $418.

After the 2011 reductions, the city auditor conducted a telephone survey with 70 of the parents in families who saw cuts in their checks. A majority reported that after the TANF reductions they experienced difficulty finding the money to launder their childrens’ clothes or buy items such as shoes or gloves that they needed for school. More than half reported increased levels of stress and anxiety. More than half said they had fallen behind on paying bills and had utility services interrupted. Six said that since the 2011 benefit reductions, they had become homeless.

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