Living Up To Promises Made to Families In DC's Budget Negotiations

The DC Council just voted on the District's budget for next year.

The language the Council and the Mayor used to describe their FY17 budget choices shows a shared vision of making the District a city in which everyone can prosper. In her State of the District address, Mayor Bowser described her proposed budget as "creating pathways to the middle class." The DC Council described the budget as "enhanc[ing] critical programs that improve the health, well-being, and economic opportunities of all District residents."

In small, but important ways, this budget does some of this.

Investments were made in early intervention, public schools, job training, prevention of teen pregnancy and domestic violence. I'm also encouraged by the positive steps forward on family homelessness. There now is a concrete commitment to replace the decaying and dangerous DC General Shelter with new, smaller family shelters. It's a critical step forward that, when complete, will provide safer and more dignified living spaces for our homeless children and their parents.

But there's one area where next year's District budget falls short: the TANF program. The good news is the Mayor and Council have pledged to fix the TANF program by next year.

TANF (which stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is a lifeline for vulnerable children and their parents. It provides modest cash income, transportation assistance and child-care subsidies for families especially down on their luck. Study after study shows TANF can be the difference between a child going hungry, failing in school, ending up in foster care or becoming homeless.

It's a vital program in a city like ours where 1 in 4 kids live in poverty. This number rises to 1 in 2 in Wards 7 and 8. And it's hard to believe, but there are many kids in the District today who live in families with virtually no cash income. This is why the TANF program is so critical.

A few years ago, the District began cutting TANF benefits for low-income families, so that today about 13,000 DC children live in families with only about $150 a month of cash assistance. Worse, these children are at risk of being cut off from the program altogether because their parents haven't found steady jobs during the program's rigid 60-month time limit.

If families don't have their most basic needs met, how can we expect children to learn in school, parents to focus on learning new job skills or our families to leave homeless shelters?

That's why Children's Law Center has joined a large network of other advocates to urge the DC government to fix the program so it can be a true safety net for our most vulnerable residents. This includes a call to extend the program's current 60-month time limit for parents and their children when they face a severe disability, domestic violence, homelessness or other barriers to employment. It's a proven approach adopted by 44 other states and is a best practice we should bring to DC.

It's time to stop pretending children can succeed when their parents don't. It's a lesson learned by schools, which invest in home visits to engage parents. And in healthcare, where the recent push to expand Medicaid for poor parents is a reflection of how much better children do when their parents are healthy, too.

As our elected officials work out their plan for the TANF program, I urge them to remember children cannot succeed without a stable family.

Children's Law Center stands ready to work with the Mayor and the Council to fix the TANF program once and for all. There have been too many stop gap solutions for TANF over the years. We hope by this time next year, when the Council votes on the next budget, their vote includes a strengthened TANF program that works for families we risk leaving behind despite DC's recent prosperity.

When we do, our elected officials will be one step closer to fulfilling their promise to create a pathway to the middle class for all DC residents.