Bill puts 5-year limit on welfare

By Tim Craig
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; B01

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.

He said there is a one- to two-year waiting period for job-training services. Carter also said, "The challenge in the District is that many of the customers we support are not functionally literate enough to get jobs."

But Barry pinned the blamed on Carter, saying it's "inexcusable" that more recipients have not moved into the workforce.

"The TANF program cannot achieve without the full, active participation of every agency in District government," said Barry, who wants Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) to replace Carter.

At the hearing, the District's TANF program was contrasted with Maryland's. Although the state has a population of more than 6 million, only about 25,000 Maryland families receive benefits, all but 10 percent of whom are removed from the rolls in five years or less.

Stacy L. Rodgers, a deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said the state immediately assesses a recipient and matches the person up with federally funded job training and potential employers. If a recipient refuses to abide by a government-imposed plan "to achieve self-sufficiency," Rodgers said, Maryland terminates his or her benefits.

"We'll work with you as long as you work with us," Rodgers said.

Wells said the District will be looking to Maryland for advice as it seeks to reform its system. But most advocates lined up against a five-year limit on benefits, even though about 5,000 D.C. families have been receiving the assistance for eight or more years.

Nina Smith, a single mother affiliated with the Southeast Ministry, a nonprofit job-training and study program, told the council that she had to reenter the TANF program last year after she was forced to quit a job because of a lack of child care.

"I'm back on, not because I want to be but to support my household," she said. "I am asking you not to pass this because if you do, a lot of us will be cold, homeless and hungry and our kids will suffer because we won't have the money to support them."

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