In 2011, long-term welfare recipients in the District had reason to be gravely worried, because the D.C. Council and then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray seemed intent on ending benefits entirely for families that had been on the rolls for longer than 60 months. The cutoff date, dubbed “the cliff,” was set for October of this year, after which about 6,000 impoverished adults with roughly 12,000 children would be left to fend for themselves financially.
But with that get-tough deadline just three months away, the District government has done a dramatic about-face on welfare reform. Under the city’s recently enacted budget for the next fiscal year, not only will long-term welfare clients continue to receive monthly payments, they eventually will get substantial increases in benefits after enduring incremental reductions over the past several years.
The policy change, which could cost D.C. taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the next several years, seems to reflect a heightened political tolerance for the underclass in a gentrifying city that has enjoyed an economic rebirth. Advocates for the poor said the shift also results from a realization that abandoning entrenched welfare recipients would greatly exacerbate homelessness, crime, child neglect and other social problems, creating an even bigger drain on municipal spending.
Plus, the advocates said, for political leaders, kicking people off public assistance is easier talked about than done.
“In our advocacy campaign, the way we positioned this was, ‘Do you really want to be the mayor who cuts 12,000 children off benefits?’ ” said Linnea Lassiter, an analyst who specializes in welfare issues for the nonprofit D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Referring to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is more than halfway through a four-year term, Lassiter said: “I think she’s starting to think about reelection. And I think that’s a factor.”
Bowser’s predecessor, Gray (D), who was D.C. Council chairman and mayor-elect in late 2010, was instrumental at the time in getting a budget measure passed that started the process of removing long-term welfare recipients from the rolls.
The move was a much-delayed response by the city to landmark welfare reform legislation signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which largely prohibited states and the District from giving federal welfare money to people who had been on the rolls for longer than five years. While many states adjusted their welfare policies to the federal law, the District instead used municipal tax dollars to continue benefits for entrenched recipients, at a cost of more than $10 million annually in recent budgets.
In all, about 13,000 D.C. families with nearly 23,000 children are receiving public assistance, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. At any given time, officials said, the total includes about 6,000 families that have been collecting benefits for longer than five years. Case workers call them “60-monthers.”
After the 2008 financial crash, as the District’s TANF caseload swelled, the idea of cutting off benefits for 60-monthers, in keeping with the Clinton-era federal reform, was more politically palatable than it is today.
Under Gray, the termination date was set for Oct. 1, 2015, then postponed to October of this year. In the meantime, as the deadline clock was ticking, payments to those entrenched recipients were drastically reduced over time. The typical 60-monther is an unmarried woman in her 20s with two dependent children, officials said. On average, such a family currently gets about $150 a month.
This year, however, when it was finally up to Bowser to end the payments, she and the council reversed course. In addition to continuing benefits for long-term welfare clients beyond October, the new budget will boost the payments to typical-size families to about $500 monthly starting next April — a figure that is similar to the amount given to a parent with two children who has been on welfare for less than five years.
Each 60-monther will have to follow an “individual responsibility plan” involving requirements for work, job training or education. But the penalty for not abiding by the plan will amount to a TANF reduction of no more than 6 percent.
“With the benefit of 20 years of national studies since [federal] welfare reform and analysis of local data, we believe families have stronger outcomes when they receive needed income supports and individualized services,” the mayor’s office said in a statement last week. “Because we are serious about supporting families to access opportunity, we need to be willing to support them on the individualized path to get there.”
The city’s Department of Human Services, which runs the TANF program, has contracts with private service-providers that offer job training, education and other forms of help aimed at getting clients off the welfare rolls. With “the cliff” no longer looming, and thousands of 60-monthers due to continue getting benefits, the agency said it intends to beef up those services, hoping to boost the rate of welfare “exits.”
Brian Campbell, senior policy adviser in DHS’s Economic Security Administration, said the agency plans to institute “a new model” of performance-based contracts.
“What we’re hoping is, based on how we’re incentivizing our providers, they’ll benefit from helping our customers get the skills they need so they can overcome the issues they’re struggling with and build their own self-sufficiency,” he said.
Meanwhile, according to a report by the District’s chief financial officer, “the total cost of TANF cash benefits under the new policy . . . will be $66.1 million in fiscal year 2018,” which begins in October, “and costs will grow to $91.7 million by fiscal year 2021.”
Nationally, the landmark 1996 federal law eliminated a Depression-era entitlement program called Aid to Families With Dependent Children, which had virtually ensured that eligible recipients could stay on the welfare rolls for unlimited periods, even their entire lives, without looking for work. “Welfare queens” was a familiar pejorative.
Under the replacement TANF program, states and the District receive yearly grants for their welfare programs. Only in limited circumstances can the money be given to people who have been collecting public assistance for more than 60 months. As a result, states generally reshaped their programs by establishing cutoff dates, drafting criteria for benefit extensions, and requiring recipients to find employment, participate in job training or enroll in school to continue getting monthly checks.
After the District finally set a termination date, advocates for the poor began pushing for generous extension criteria. Last fall, a 36-member study group convened by Bowser recommended TANF extensions for broad categories of long-term recipients, a list that was so inclusive that almost no 60-monther would be left out.
The group said payments should continue for “customers who are caring for a household member who is physically or mentally incapacitated, customers who are dealing with domestic violence, pregnant or parenting teens who meet certain conditions.” Benefits also should be maintained for “a parent or caretaker who is 60 years or older,” it said.
In addition, if a long-term recipient “experiences significant barriers to employment, including low literacy, a learning disability, or physical or mental impairments,” that person should not lose benefits. Nor should payments be ended for people “at risk of homelessness” or whose children “are at risk of entering the foster care system” because of family poverty. And nobody should be cut off from TANF “if the unemployment rate for customers without a high school degree is higher than 7 percent.”
In legislation and in its recently approved $13.9 billion budget for the fiscal year starting in October, the city adopted virtually all of the group’s recommendations.
“One of the things we looked at carefully was, ‘What is the cost of not doing this?’ ” said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), a member of the study group and a leading opponent of the TANF cutoff. “We found that if just one out of 10 of these families falls into homelessness, then the cost of getting them out would be far greater” than the cost of continuing TANF benefits. “So we’ll be saving money by helping them.”
As for the penalties for not abiding by an individual responsibility plan, the city also adopted the group’s recommendation that 80 percent of a TANF client’s payment should be untouchable, because it is necessary for child care. Of the remaining money, slightly less than one-third of it can be docked for violating a plan. The math works out to a maximum TANF reduction of no more than 6 percent monthly.
“The reason we worked so hard to achieve this is the impact on kids when you cut off this benefit is hugely significant,” said Sharra Greer, policy director for the Children’s Law Center in the District. “We now have 20 years of experience with TANF that tells us exactly what happens when you cut off a family. You have increased homelessness, poor educational outcomes, increased child abuse and neglect referrals.
“Really, all kinds of negative impacts.”