A needed conversation on welfare in D.C.

By Marion Barry
Friday, November 19, 2010; 10:42 PM

Recently, D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and I introduced legislation that would -- consistent with federal regulations -- limit Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits to five years.

My legislation, while imperfect and incomplete, is intended to start a serious dialogue on how to break the cycle of generational poverty, government dependency and economic disparity in the city.

At present, the District is one of only a few jurisdictions in the country that spend local government funds to allow TANF aid to go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, this unsound provision in our local law has been coupled with a system that has failed our residents for years. The result has been to enslave residents in joblessness and dependency on the government rather than lifting them up and giving them an opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency through job training and employment.

That's one reason the District now has 17,505 families receiving TANF benefits, with over 40 percent receiving benefits for more than five years. We must do better.

As a council member representing a highly underserved and overlooked population in Ward 8, I am very well aware that families that receive these benefits for more than five years frequently face the most severe barriers to employment and independence. Many of them cope with the added burdens of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental and physical disability.

It is wrong to suggest, as some have, that I would be so callous as to advocate the immediate removal of thousands of TANF recipients; to do so only spreads fear among recipients instead of advancing a solution. But I am firmly committed to a five-year limitation, with exemptions for those who face severe barriers to employment -- as long as it is part of a full-scale program redesign.

For real transformation to take place, the mayor and the D.C. Council must rapidly change our system to include participation from every city agency, as well as the private sector, and employ their collective expertise and resources to help beneficiaries change their lives.

To begin, we can act immediately to improve the delivery of job training services to 10,600 families deemed "ready to work." Our six existing job training vendors receive a bonus for work placement and retention, but they provide services to only 6,900 families. Consequently, thousands of families face one- to two-year waiting periods for training.

Rather than terminating these contracts because they have not met the recipients' needs, the Department of Human Services has allowed the contracts to continue. Why would the Fenty administration make sanctions for noncompliance by individuals receiving benefits a priority instead of increasing the capacity of job training and education programs administered by these contractors? It is only now, years after the problems became apparent, that DHS has a plan to prepare new requirements and solicit new vendors.

The irony of all of this is that the great majority of TANF recipients want better opportunities. Unfortunately, in our city, we have elected officials, members of the media, advocates and residents who seem to prefer to keep TANF recipients enslaved, without jobs and without hope.

We don't have to accept that. We can get the entire community involved to identify ways to make our TANF program more effective and better at serving aid recipients. The people who need the most help are not receiving it. They are the most vulnerable in our society, and we are failing them.

I am confident that Mayor-elect Vincent Gray thoroughly understands this problem and the massive overhaul that is needed. With his experience and knowledge of social services, I am optimistic that he will be the type of leader who will diligently work to implement the policies to break the cycle for this generation of recipients.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Ward 8 on the D.C. Council.

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