Winter snowstorms send most parents into panic mode. When my boys were young, I remember doing the calculations. Are schools closed? Can I find someone to watch them?
It’s even more of a burden for families struggling to make ends meet. Their list of questions grows more urgent. If I miss my shift at work, will I get fired? Is there enough food in the house to feed the kids? How are we going to stay warm when the heat’s been turned off?
These aren’t hypothetical questions. For too many families, most days are a struggle with or without a snowstorm. About 1 in 4 D.C. kids lives in poverty, meaning their parents make less than about $24,000 a year for a family of four. The number is closer to 1 in 2 in Wards 7 and 8. It may be hard to believe, but many D.C. children are being raised in families with virtually no income.
For these children, the District’s safety net programs are a lifeline that ensures their basic needs are met, no matter the catastrophe. The D.C. government, social service organizations, food banks and churches provide children with a patchwork of support to make sure they can have a warm bed, see a doctor and don’t go hungry. When families are especially down on their luck, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program kicks in. It provides up to 60 months of modest cash income, transportation assistance and child-care subsidies for parents who don’t make enough money to take care of their children’s basic needs.
But the District is about to throw 13,000 kids out of the TANF program. The reason? Their parents haven’t found stable jobs during the program’s rigid 60-month time limit.
It’s one thing when unexpected weather leaves low-income children hungry for a few days. It’s another when a D.C. policy threatens to create a permanent crisis.
Because I work with low-income families, I don’t have to imagine what it will look like for the 13,000 children about to be kicked out of the program. It will be devastating.
My organization works with a loving mom of two kids, ages 10 and 5. The family was just barely getting by when, last year, the mother was forced to quit her cashier job on doctor’s orders after her health issues worsened. She turned to the TANF program for assistance so she could have some income while she figured things out. Unfortunately, she was denied. She had relied on TANF during the recession. She fell behind on her electric bills, and, in December, her heat and electricity were shut off.
Our client is a great mom who became even more resourceful. She told the kids they were camping and had them pile on blankets. Losing their electricity was more than an inconvenience; it was life-threatening for her youngest son, who depended on a nebulizer to control his asthma. They would sneak into the apartment building’s basement to plug in the equipment whenever he had an attack.
Many of us have family to turn to when times are hard. But for people living without income, many of their relatives and friends are in the same boat. Even so, our client managed to scrape together help and made a down payment to get her electricity turned back on just before Christmas. We are working to help her figure out other resources.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If this family lived in one of 44 states, they would likely qualify for a medical waiver that would extend the time limit on TANF. But the District has no extension for hardships. It’s an area of our public policy where we are far behind what is considered best practice.
The good news is that there is a bill before the D.C. Council that could change that. The D.C. Public Assistance Amendment Act of 2015 proposes to extend the 60-month time limit for parents and their children who face a severe disability, domestic violence, homelessness or other barriers to employment. It would provide benefits after 60 months for parents who are following all program requirements but still can’t find a job.
Passing this reform is the right thing to do and smart public policy. Research shows that when children lose their TANF benefits, they are more likely to repeat grades in school, end up in foster care or become homeless.
We can’t control whether there will be another “Snowzilla” next winter. But we can prevent D.C. children from experiencing the catastrophe of losing their TANF benefits. Passing the TANF reform bill is a critical step in the right direction.
The writer is executive director of the Children’s Law Center.