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Longtime D.C. welfare recipients prepare for life off the rolls

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On Tuesday Dec. 21, the D.C. Council will vote on a proposal that would limit residents from receiving cash payments after five years on the District's welfare program, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Diane Greenfield, who has five children between the ages of three months and six years old, has been receiving welfare payments on and off for seven years.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 9:47 PM

Navida Joy knows she needs to liberate herself from the District's dole for good. The divorced mother of three has been receiving city welfare checks on and off for six of the past 10 years.

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But Joy, who gets about $430 a month in welfare checks and $440 in monthly food stamps, supports a controversial plan by the D.C. Council that would slash her benefits and those of other long-term welfare recipients.

"The council's move is the right idea, but there are a lot of people out there who depend on it and need welfare," said Joy, 28, who lost her bartending job at T.G.I. Friday's in August and takes medical coding classes at a local trade college to find work. "Right now, I am facing eviction because I can't pay my rent. I'm not as motivated as I should be. I've been dealing with a divorced family. But I am trying. I plan on getting off welfare and not begging for money."

Her life illustrates the hurdles the city faces in pushing thousands of people off its welfare rolls.

On Tuesday, the strapped D.C. Council - facing a $188 million shortfall this year and a projected $440 million deficit in the next budget - is expected to approve cutting welfare payments to single unemployed parents who have been in the District's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program cumulatively for five or more years.

Many are single mothers who dropped out of high school. They often come from troubled families and have spotty work histories. Some also struggle with alcohol or drug abuse or mental health issues.

The cuts would have a deep impact on the city's poor, particularly its children. Among the 17,000 families in the city's welfare program, about 40 percent - or 6,800 - have been getting benefits for more than five years, receiving an average of $370 a month.

The outcome of the council's vote appears certain. "It's going to stay on track as it is," said Doxie A. McCoy, spokeswoman for Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), now in his final days as council chairman. "Chairman Gray has said repeatedly the cuts would be painful, and everything had to be on the table. I would say this is a motivator and a way of breaking the cycle of dependency."

In 1996, President Bill Clinton's welfare reform act imposed a five-year limit on federal payments to welfare participants, but it let states keep using federal funds to pay benefits for some of their long-term recipients, said LaDonna Pavetti of the nonprofit research Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some states, as well as the District, have used their own dollars to pay for other long-term welfare recipients.

The council's measure, which won preliminary approval this month, would gradually eliminate payments to long-term welfare recipients, starting with a 40 percent reduction of monthly benefits by October. By 2014, the five-year limit would be absolute.

Critics say the council's measure has been cobbled together too quickly and could flood the foster-care system and homeless shelters with families and children.

"To be doing this now, when the effects of the recession are still at their height, is unfortunate, and to be doing it in such a hurried way is not thoughtful," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law school professor who is a leader of the health and human services committee of Gray's mayoral transition team.


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