District Weighs Cuts to Welfare Benefits

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Fenty administration wants to save several million dollars by cutting back on welfare benefits for people who are not working or using the city's help to find a job.

The monthly benefit, which for a family of three is $428, would be cut in half for any recipient deemed employable who does not meet the work requirement for six months. If the recipient were to go another six months without complying, the District would be prepared to cut off benefits altogether, the city's human services director told advocates for the poor last week.

The prospect of such cuts has alarmed advocates, who say that with more people turning to welfare benefits and city unemployment at nearly 11 percent, this is not the time to be scaling back payments to the poorest residents.

Many of the people who would face benefit cuts have mental illnesses or other problems that make it difficult for them to find jobs, said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. "The people who tend to be sanctioned tend to be the most down-and-out families, the most troubled families," Lazere said.

But faced with a projected $666 million revenue shortfall over the next two years, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his staff have few easy choices left as the D.C. Council prepares for its vote on the new budget Friday.

About 16,000 District households, including one in three children, are served by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, said Katie Kerstetter, an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. TANF, which provides cash assistance, is funded with state and federal money and administered by the states. Recipients typically also qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, which are not affected by the District's proposal.

The District has not sanctioned many recipients who fail to meet TANF's requirement that they hold jobs or participate in job search programs. Policies vary among the states. Some, such as Virginia, impose sanctions immediately. Under federal law, at least 50 percent of the recipients must meet the work requirements, which vary depending on the age of children in the home.

The District's practice has limited its ability to use federal funds for TANF payments, and the city has elected to use local money to cover the remaining households.

The rising TANF caseload and the increasing number of households that do not meet the work requirements have strained the city's resources, City Administrator Neil O. Albert said recently in testimony before the council.

Of the more than 8,000 TANF households subject to the work requirement, 500 to 600 are in full compliance, according to the memorandum prepared by Albert's office. More than 6,000 that receive full benefits are not participating in the program's job search process at all, according to the memorandum.

The city wants to move at least 1,000 recipients into compliance, which would increase the federal funding available for TANF, according to the memo. To encourage them to find jobs, the District is proposing to increase the monthly benefit by $100 for families that have been or begin meeting the target set by the city.

Neki Swinton, a 33-year-old mother of four and a TANF recipient, said she has been on and off welfare since she was 16 and was not helped by the welfare-to-work program that she went through twice.

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