Welfare in the District

Thursday, November 18, 2010

PERHAPS THE most striking evidence of the failings of the District's welfare system is that no less an advocate for generous social benefits than D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) sees the need for stringent new controls. His proposal to limit benefits comes from watching generations of families trapped in a cycle of poverty, joblessness and government assistance. The plan has so roiled the council that it is uncertain that it will even be brought up for a vote, but the issues that Mr. Barry raises should not be dismissed.

Mr. Barry and council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) are sponsoring legislation that would end the District's unique policy of limitless benefits for participants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Under the 1996 welfare reform, the federal government imposed a five-year lifetime limit, but the District - unlike most states - opted to use local funds to pay benefits beyond the five years. The federal government does permit states to extend benefits to the 20 percent of caseloads seen as having the most difficult barriers to employment. But the city estimates that about 40 percent of the 17,000 families on TANF have been getting benefits for more than five years. The subsidy is meager - an average of $370 a month. But the cost to the District is about $35 million a year, and that has to be a concern for a government wrestling with budget shortfalls.

It's significant that the bill - which came under widespread criticism at a public hearing Monday - is being promoted by representatives from the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River most affected by TANF. Mr. Barry, in particular, has long presented himself as a voice for the city's neediest, and so it's telling to hear him talk about the failings of a system that keeps people trapped in joblessness and poverty and dependent on government. Part of the problem is inadequacies in services provided to TANF participants, so it's encouraging that the city already has significant reforms underway. Those include a new assessment system to identify the strengths and needs of clients as well as a broader range of education and employment programs.

Clearly, those programs should be given a chance to work. Likewise, we understand the concern of those who worry about the hardship for a vulnerable population if benefits are cut off during these extraordinary hard times. But Mr. Barry and Ms. Alexander are right to ask when government help becomes a hindrance - and that's a conversation worth continuing.

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