Bill would place 5-year limit on welfare in D.C.

By Tim Craig Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 10:36 PM

Two D.C. Council members from impoverished areas of the city are proposing to end cash payments to long-term welfare recipients to save tax dollars and encourage more of their constituents to find work.

The proposed five-year benefit limit, sponsored by council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), would bring the District in line with most other states, but the proposal is drawing warnings from advocates that it would lead to more homeless families, hungry children and crime.

"For far too long, we have cradled a large part of the population, and our cradling has actually handicapped people," Alexander said. "Many of our residents view government assistance as a way of life, and in my opinion we are actually hurting our residents instead of helping them."

As part of the welfare reform act signed into law by former president Bill Clinton in 1996, the federal government placed a five-year lifetime limit on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. But states are allowed to keep recipients on the rolls longer than five years if they use local funds.

The District, long known for its generosity in providing and protecting social services for the poor, has embraced a limitless policy, costing D.C. taxpayers about $35 million a year.

But Barry and Alexander, both of whom represent neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, say too many District residents now rely on their monthly check from the government. About 40 percent of the city's 17,000 families on TANF have been getting benefits for more than five years. They receive an average of $370 a month.

"We have to break the cycle," Barry said. "Part of the purpose of the bill is to start a dialogue about how ineffective our current system is."

The two council members' push to limit benefits caught many of their colleagues by surprise, even though the council is searching for ways to close a $175 million budget shortfall.

At a hearing on the bill Monday, council members Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) both said they opposed it. About 8,000 families would immediately lose their benefits and other government help, such as child-care subsidies, if the bill was approved, they said.

"I don't plan to move the bill forward," said Wells, chairman of the Human Services Committee. "But I do think it was driven by a frustration that we have generational poverty, and people seem to subsist on these services and we are not able to get them off."

Although the legislation will probably not be voted on, it's renewing a debate about whether the District's Department of Human Services is doing enough to offer job training and job placement services to TANF recipients.

As part of federal welfare reform, states are expected to develop programs to help able-bodied recipients work at least 20 hours a week. But Clarence H. Carter, director of the Department of Human Services, said several thousand recipients cannot meet those requirements.

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