Ebony Price got an ominous letter from the D.C. government last winter, the same warning that the city has sent to thousands of other entrenched welfare recipients.
It came from the Department of Human Services, which manages the welfare program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Price, already beset by daily worries as a jobless parent struggling with often-empty pockets, felt her anxiety deepen as she read the notice.
“They told me that due to me being on TANF for more than 60 months, I would be reduced,” she said, referring to the public assistance she receives. Since 2011, her monthly benefit had been gradually gutted, from $366 to $120, she said. And the letter “was telling me they were going to reduce me to none, zero, nothing. No income.”
Price, 27, who lives with her boyfriend and two young daughters in a rent-subsidized apartment in Anacostia, is one of about 5,700 adults (with roughly 12,000 dependent children) who have been on the city’s TANF rolls for longer than five years, accounting for almost 40 percent of the District’s 15,000 welfare cases.
Now, for Price and many other longtime recipients, a deadline clock is ticking: After two decades of delays, the city next year may finally end benefits for those who have run out their eligibility.
“I feel like no one knows what it’s like until you’re in this situation,” Price said recently, sitting at an office computer at Bread for the City, a nonprofit social-services center where she works as a volunteer. “You are blessed to be financially stable. You are blessed not to have to go through the things other people go through. You shouldn’t look down your nose at someone who’s less fortunate than you are.”
Monday is the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s signing of landmark welfare-reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, that heralded a huge shift in the nation’s approach to helping poor families.
Gone was a federal entitlement, dating to the Great Depression, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had virtually guaranteed that eligible recipients could get monthly checks for unlimited periods, with few strings. “Welfare queens” was a familiar pejorative then. On Aug. 22, 1996, a new system was born, with states and the District receiving yearly federal grants to finance TANF programs.
The catch: With some exceptions, the federal money cannot be given to those, such as Price, who have been on the rolls for 60 months. “First and foremost,” Clinton declared at the time, TANF “should be about moving people from welfare to work.”
Every state has generally shaped its TANF program to that federal vision, establishing cutoffs and criteria for extensions and requiring recipients to undergo job training or enroll in school to continue getting benefits before the cutoff.
For years, though, the District eschewed sweeping reforms. Entrenched welfare clients in the nation’s capital who become ineligible to benefit from the federal grants receive city money instead, totaling about $10 million annually in recent budgets.
But in this rapidly gentrifying metropolis, political tolerance for the underclass, and even public compassion, appears to have waned, advocates for the poor contend.
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Big changes in the District’s TANF program — including the planned elimination of benefits in October 2017 for an undetermined number of longtime recipients — began brewing in late 2010, spurred at least partly by an increasing welfare caseload for the city in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Officials still must decide on criteria for hardship extensions, an issue that the D.C. Council is expected to take up this fall.
“If you talk with practitioners who work with these families, what we know is, they’re really living on the edge,” said D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), the lead sponsor of a bill that would set broad criteria for welfare extensions. Under her plan, a vast majority of the 5,700 or so families that have been TANF recipients for longer than 60 months might continue to get benefits, mostly at the city’s expense.
No one familiar with the situation thinks the District will cut off welfare recipients wholesale, allowing no extensions. What remains to be seen is how loose or strict the criteria ultimately will be and how much the extensions will cost D.C. taxpayers.
Vincent C. Gray, who was D.C. Council chairman and mayor-elect in late 2010, played a key role in getting a budget measure passed that started the process of eventually removing longtime TANF recipients from the rolls. After losing his bid for a second term as mayor, Gray won this year’s Democratic primary for the Ward 7 council seat, meaning he is virtually assured of prevailing in the election in November and returning to the council in January.
Gray, who was in New York last week, did not respond to phone messages asking for his position on Nadeau’s extensions bill.
The issue of welfare reform rarely came up in the 2014 mayoral race, despite much discussion about the widening economic gap between the haves and have-nots in a city swirling with demographic changes and becoming generally wealthier. On the few occasions when she spoke about welfare during her winning campaign, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) focused on the need to create more job opportunities for the poor.
A Bowser spokesman did not reply to messages last week seeking comment on the topic.
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Price is the typical District welfare client: an unmarried woman in her 20s with two dependent children. According to the nonprofit D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, recipients who have not hit the five-year mark (about 9,300 families, by the city’s count) are receiving an average of $441 a month from the federal grants. And longtime recipients ineligible for federal money were getting similar sums from the municipal coffer until a few years ago.
However, since 2011, when the countdown began toward the scheduled termination of benefits for those who are past the five-year limit, their allotments have been gradually cut to an average of $158 monthly, the Department of Human Services said.
Besides $120 in TANF money, direct-deposited to her Electronic Benefits Transfer card at the start of each month, Price said, she gets $511 a month in food stamps and accepts charity from Bread for the City and other organizations.
She said her live-in boyfriend, who is the father of her 9-month-old daughter, has a part-time, low-wage job loading and unloading trucks at a Dollar Tree store. Thanks to a rent subsidy, Price said, they pay $188 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
“Like my daughter’s about to go back to school,” she said, meaning her older child, who starts the fourth grade this week. “I can’t get shoes, and diapers, and pay my rent, and keep the household up, and transportation.”
Sitting at Bread for the City one morning last week, only midway through the month, she gestured to her purse and the EBT card in her wallet. “Right now my balance is zero dollars,” she said, grinning ruefully, “and zero cents.”
That’s what $120 means to her.
Echoing numerous advocates for the poor, Nadeau said that many longtime recipients face steep barriers to employment, including unaffordable child care, poor job skills, literacy troubles, health woes and issues related to domestic violence. Cutting them from the welfare rolls, she said, would exacerbate other budget-draining problems.
“When we played with the numbers,” Nadeau said, “what we had was, if even 10 percent of the families removed from TANF fall into homelessness, then getting them back into housing would cost as much money as funding all these extensions.”
Judith Sandalow, director of the Children’s Law Center in the District, agreed.
“We’re quite certain that the city would spend more on homeless services, foster care and the criminal justice system,” she said. “And we know that children in homeless families don’t learn as well, so we’d see more costs for special education.”
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Price, who grew up with five sisters in a low-income family in the District, was 7 years old when Clinton signed the historic welfare-reform act. By the time she graduated in 2008 from a charter high school tailored for students at risk of dropping out, she was the mother of a toddler named Daeon, now 10, whose father she lost track of long ago.
Soon after finishing school, Price said, she went on welfare. Although she has held an array of jobs over the years, and became a certified emergency medical technician through an adult-education program, she said, her inability to afford consistent child care for Daeon stymied her quest for long-term employment.
“I was a secretary for someone,” she said. “I was a person that puts in payroll. I have had cashier work. Cleaning jobs. I have done a lot. But it always had to end.”
Then, late last year, she gave birth to another daughter, Lauryn. To anyone suggesting that it was unwise of her to have a second child, given her straits, Price ventures no rationale, only a blunt retort: “You shouldn’t speak upon that situation. Who are you to say what’s right for me and what’s not right for me?”
At the moment, little Lauryn was elsewhere at Bread for the City, on the lap of a staff member who was busy typing. The crowded, clamorous facility offers a community of free babysitters for Price, who volunteers as a mediator, a problem-solver, ironing out confusion that often arises between the staff and an endless flow of needy people. The daily work fulfills Price’s job-preparation requirement for TANF benefits.
For years, there was little political will in the city to cut off longtime recipients such as she.
From 1996, when federal welfare reform passed, until the mid-2000s, the District’s TANF rolls steadily shrank in a healthy economy, from 25,000 cases to slightly more than 10,000. But as the caseload increased in the recession after the 2008 crash, Gray, as a council member and mayor, stunned advocates for the poor by pushing for time limits.
His human services director, David A. Berns, hired in 2011, had helped implement welfare reforms in three states. “That’s why he brought me in,” recalled Berns, now retired in Michigan. He said one of his main accomplishments, in preparing for the eventual imposition of a 60-month restriction, was contracting for a variety of programs aimed at shepherding people from TANF to paying jobs.
Laura Zeilinger, who took charge of the Department of Human Services last year under Bowser, said she has greatly expanded the capacities of those job programs. Protracted wait times for enrollment, which had been a year in some cases, have been virtually eliminated, she said. As for whether the cutoffs will take place on schedule in October 2017, Zeilinger said, it depends on the enactment of fair criteria for extensions of benefits.
“The loss of cash income can have a very significant and potentially harmful impact on children,” she said. “We fully understand that.”
So does Ebony Price.
She said she hopes her volunteer experience at Bread for the City will lead to gainful employment. She hopes to earn money someday by working with the homeless, victims of domestic abuse and others in crisis. And she hopes to find affordable child care.
“I hope for great things,” she said. “I hope, I hope.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of welfare dependents in D.C. This version has been corrected.