D.C. plans to review cases, delay welfare cuts

The D.C. Department of Human Services announced plans Monday to delay further trimming welfare payments to long-term recipients this fall so the agency can finish conducting a review of each case.

The plan was presented at a meeting with Mayor Vincent C. Gray, DHS officials and select anti-poverty advocates. It calls for “an aggressive yet deliberate strategy” to determine whether those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) still need the subsidy and to connect them with services before their benefits are reduced.

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The reviews, to be completed by April, focus on the roughly 6,000 families who have been receiving TANF for more than 60 months, or five years.

The DHS has already reviewed about 1,500 cases and plans to review another 4,500 to determine which families can be fairly eliminated.

If the D.C. Council fails to approve the plan, long-term TANF recipients will see their benefits cut by an additional 25 percent on Oct. 1.

In April 2011, the council cut benefits by 20 percent for those in the program for more than five years. In June, it voted to postpone the additional 25 percent cut on Oct. 1 for one year, but revenues to fund the delay fell short of projections.

The DHS plan shortens the delay to six months.

In a statement, Gray said the assessments, which also will help long-term recipients connect with services such as counseling and job training, are essential.

“Continuing these benefits through next spring gives us the time we need to ensure we are reforming the system the right way and ensuring we are helping people reach full self-sufficiency,” Gray said.

Without the assessments, DHS Director David Berns said families receiving TANF for more than 60 months may not know where to turn when their monthly checks are reduced or, eventually, stopped.

About 17,500 families in the city receive TANF, with an average monthly benefit of $350. TANF costs the city about $159 million annually. The reviews will cost about $4.5 million, Berns said.

Berns said that city budget cuts have prevented the DHS from providing social workers to TANF recipients. The reviews will at least provide recipients with some direction, he said.

“It’s no wonder that we’ve had less than great success helping our clients find jobs,” Berns said. “We haven’t had any staff assigned to help them with that work.”

Some of the people who work with poor families in the District were grateful that the DHS is proposing a delay in making further cuts.

“What we’re for is for victims to have continued access to benefits,” said Karma Cottman, executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who attended the DHS meeting. She stressed the need for exemptions to the 60-month limit for victims of domestic violence — exemptions not included in the plan.

“We don’t want them to be kicked off the rolls without continued access to services, or without DHS to have time to do the assessments,” she said.

Other advocates were wary of moving long-term TANF recipients off the welfare rolls too quickly.

“It is a disaster,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center.

Sandalow said that when welfare reform was passed in 1996, the District avoided a five-year cap on TANF by funding the program with city dollars. Now that it has decided to cut the program quickly, TANF recipients will not be able to benefit from years of services such as job training and substance abuse treatment.

“TANF recipients are being given very little help to go from extreme poverty — in many instances generational poverty — to work in a time that there aren’t many jobs around,” she said. “We are gravely concerned.”

The city plans to eventually eliminate most long-term TANF recipients from the welfare rolls.

 
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