D.C. Council likely to delay cutting aid to long-term welfare recipients

March 4, 2013

The D.C. Council is expected on Tuesday to delay cutting aid to long-term welfare recipients, concerned that the District is moving too aggressively to force poor residents off the rolls.

Council members will vote on emergency legislation that will slow by six months a 25 percent benefit reduction for those who have been in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for more than five years. The legislation was requested by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).

But Gray’s proposal is renewing debate about what the city needs to do to guarantee that the 18,000 families on TANF view the program as temporary assistance instead of a permanent source of income.

Under a 2010 law designed to bring the District in line with the 1996 federal welfare reforms, the council and then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) agreed to gradually reduce the benefits of recipients in the program past the five-year mark. In April 2011, after Gray became mayor, the District cut benefits by about 20 percent.

An additional 25 percent cut was scheduled for April 1, but the Gray administration decided over the weekend that it needed more time to assess the needs of the 6,500 recipients who would be affected by it.

“We knew this was going to be difficult,” said David A. Berns, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. “We have been working on the assessments, and we have not been able to complete them, and possibly we were overly optimistic in being able to get them done.”

Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the council should pass the legislation, which will cost $3 million and mirrors a council recommendation from last year.

In recent months, several council members, including David A. Catania (I-At Large), have argued that the District was moving too slowly to enact its five-year limit on benefits.

Other council members, including Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), have said they feared the Gray administration has not provided enough assistance to help recipients transition into the workforce.

“We shouldn’t have imposed these reductions in the first place,” Barry said Monday. “The TANF program is a mess, and it’s hurting people, and the mayor’s to blame for it.”

Christopher Murphy, Gray’s chief of staff, countered that the administration’s plans are working. Murphy said 3,300 recipients, including 550 in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, have moved from welfare to work.

The challenge, Murphy said, is providing enough job training and counseling for “the hardest cases” to transition into the workforce. He noted that the 6,500 recipients at risk of losing more benefits average $299 a month in direct assistance for a family of three — before the planned 25 percent reductions were to take effect next month.

“We will have six more months to work with them,” Murphy said. “It’s about being smart and compassionate.”

The delay is yet another indication of the broader struggle within the government to set limits on public assistance.

In January, over Gray’s objections, the council voted to soften sanctions on TANF recipients who decline job training. The sanctions were designed to prepare more recipients for the new five-year limits, but some council members argued that they unfairly punished poor children.

For more than a decade, city officials have used local funds to continue benefits for long-term recipients instead of abiding by the five-year limit outlined in President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform policy.

The council and Gray, then council chairman, pushed to begin implementing the policy locally in late 2010. The council at first envisioned a 60 percent reduction in benefits for long-term recipients still on the rolls this year. But the planned cuts have been slowed repeatedly as city officials grappled with the ramifications of the reduced benefits.

Graham, chairman of the council’s Human Resources Committee, said the administration underestimated how long it would take to do a comprehensive assessment of longtime recipients’ needs, mental health and job skills. Assessments have been completed for half of the 6,500 long-term cases, Graham said.

“We don’t have the assessments and we don’t have the programs to move people from dependency to self-sufficiency,” Graham said, noting that 11,000 children under age 13 live in households slated to be hit by the 25 percent reduction in benefits. “We are not ready for this, and we just end up punishing kids.”

The delay also comes as the city experiences an uptick in homeless families, resulting in crowded conditions at shelters. Berns said limited capacity at area shelters factored into the administration’s decision.

“As we look at the families, and their needs to get into apartments, it would be just one more shock to their system,” Berns said. “We think, at least the six months, will give more families a fighting chance.”

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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