Voices for Change: Perspectives on Strengthening Welfare to Work From DC TANF Recipients

by Katie Kerstetter and Joni Podschun | November 11th, 2009 | PDF of this report

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A strong and effective Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is vital to the health and wellbeing of families and children in the District of Columbia.  One in three children growing up in DC is on TANF.  These families — currently 16,000 households — turn to safety net programs when they have exhausted all other means of support.  Under TANF, families receive monthly cash assistance and are connected to other services such as food stamps and health care from DC’s Income Maintenance Administration (IMA).  Most TANF recipients are expected to participate in job readiness activities and look for work. 

DC’s TANF program should provide financial support that offers at least a minimal level of stability, and it should provide services that build employment-related skills and address barriers to work.  And indeed, the program is designed to meet these goals.  The District adopted a number of progressive policies when it established its TANF program, with the goal of helping TANF recipients address barriers to work and obtain the needed skills and knowledge for employment.  In particular, DC avoided adopting policies that have significantly lowered caseloads in other states, such as full family sanctions and strict enforcement of the 60-month time limit. 

Unfortunately, the progressive components of the District’s program have not lived up to their promise because of inadequate implementation. These shortcomings have implications for District finances as well as the health and wellbeing of our communities.

This report takes a unique approach by examining DC’s TANF program from the perspectives of TANF recipients and frontline social service workers who work in the nonprofit agencies that assist them.  This research is an effort to include their voices in TANF policy development and program design.  We conducted focus groups with 35 District TANF recipients to explore their experiences with job training, child care, services to address barriers to work, and the challenges of living on cash assistance.  We also interviewed 13 direct service providers to learn their perspectives on different aspects of the TANF program.  Our findings include:

  • Employment services are “one-size-fits-all” and don’t address individuals’ specific skills, barriers, and goals.  DC’s TANF employment services are driven substantially by federal rules that require the District to have a certain percentage of TANF recipients in federally defined work activities.  Federal law focuses on a “work first” approach — short-term job readiness with the goal of moving recipients into any kind of employment as quickly as possible.  The core of DC’s TANF employment services — operated by private and nonprofit TANF Employment Program (TEP) vendors under contract with the District — is geared towards this work first approach.   

    However, federal law gives states flexibility to pursue more in-depth training and education options.  DC’s TANF program includes a number of education and training components but provides IMA staff and the TEP vendors with no guidance as to when to refer TANF recipients to these services and no systematic process to assess and refer clients.  In fact, vendors face disincentives to direct TANF recipients to education and more intensive training.  The vendors’ one-size-fits-all approach does not work well for many recipients and leaves other, more individualized services and more intensive case management underutilized. 

    Additionally, the most common TANF employment services seldom prepare TANF recipients for higher-wage jobs.

  • TANF recipients with barriers to work are not consistently connected to appropriate services.  To help residents with personal and logistical challenges that make it hard to get and keep a job, the District provides programs such as child care, domestic violence services, substance abuse treatment, and physical and mental health services.  However, assessments and referrals to specialized services are not consistent.  While many focus group participants (hereafter referred to as “Participants”) had a positive experience with securing child care, recipients often are not connected to appropriate services, and many families are therefore unable to reach their full potential.
  • Families cannot meet their basic needs on the TANF benefit, even when it is combined with other assistance.  In addition to helping families secure employment and address barriers to work, TANF is intended to provide a safety net, in the form of cash assistance, for families who are experiencing financial and personal crises.  The maximum monthly benefit is $428 for a family of three, which equals 28 percent of the federal poverty line.  Other high-cost cities have much larger maximum monthly benefits:  a family of three in Los Angeles can receive up to $723, while a family in New York can receive as much as $691 a month.  Participants agreed, more than on any other issue, that the cash benefit amount is not sufficient. 

    Even when combined with benefits from the Food Stamp Program — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — and other supportive programs, the level of cash assistance provided by TANF is not enough to make ends meet.  Despite careful budgeting, Participants explained, they still run out of funds before the end of the month.  For the two-thirds of TANF recipients without housing subsidies, the struggle to make ends meet is especially hard, with many spending all or most of their grant for rent.  The consequences of inadequate income include hunger, unstable housing and homelessness, academic underachievement for children, and exposure to violence.  Additionally, many families have trouble transitioning from TANF to employment because of the loss of work supports and other public benefits.

To address these problems, the District can take a number of steps to build on the strengths of the existing TANF program.  The final chapter of this report contains detailed information about recommendations to strengthen DC’s program, including:

  • Improving the assessment and referral process: IMA should adopt a more individualized approach in order to connect TANF recipients to the appropriate mixture of support services, job training, and educational opportunities.  This could be accomplished through changes in the intake and recertification processes to ensure that applicants know about their options within TANF, including an orientation to employment and supportive services.  Recipients or applicants also should complete an enhanced up-front assessment and meet one-on-one with specialized staff at IMA service centers to construct an individualized plan. 
  • Increasing the range of options for job training, adult education, and support services:   IMA will revise its TEP vendor contracts in 2010.  The District should use this as an opportunity to increase the availability of education and hard skills training options for TANF recipients, as well as to increase the use of existing tuition assistance and education and training programs.  The current employment-related contracts could be expanded to include education and hard skills training providers, in addition to the job readiness vendors.  Instead of referring nearly all recipients to job readiness services, IMA should connect recipients with services that fit their individualized needs, with the focus remaining on finding employment.  

    The District should consider providing more intensive services for TANF recipients who have participated in TANF job readiness and still do not have employment, including subsidized employment, case management through the District’s Family Services Administration, and education services.

  • Ensuring adequate income for TANF recipients:  There are a variety of strategies the District could employ to expand income supports while families are on TANF.  We recommend an increase in the cash benefit amount and child support pass-through and disregard — the amount that families can keep without facing a reduction in TANF benefits — to help more families meet basic costs.  

    It is also important that families continue to receive support as they transition to employment, especially as their income rises and they become ineligible for other work supports. The District should adopt a transitional TANF benefit to incentivize work and help families meet rising costs. Transitional TANF benefits provide a monthly cash supplement for a period of time to families that have left TANF for employment.  These benefits help to supplement the wages of families that may be transitioning into low-wage employment and seeing decreases in their TANF and food stamp benefits.  Transitional benefits also can help a state increase its work participation rate, because families receiving these benefits are counted as receiving TANF assistance.

  • Measuring outcomes:  Beyond improving the access to high-quality TANF services, the District should take steps to better measure and report outcomes.  One way District agencies track their progress is through budget performance measures.  Currently, however, the city gathers relatively little information on program outcomes and reports only a small amount of this information in its budget documents.  Future TANF performance measures should include wage levels of recipients who obtain a job, job retention rates, participation in support services, and customer service. 

 
A strong safety net supports the most vulnerable members of our society, creates shared opportunity, and fosters healthy communities.  Supporting families as they work toward self-sufficiency can reduce childhood poverty and hunger and improve the quality of life throughout the District.  To allow TANF to meet these important goals, it is incumbent on District agencies and city leaders, as well as their non-profit and for-profit partners, to ensure that TANF recipients have access to the combination of programs and services necessary to meet their long-term goals —employment in a career track with an adequate wage, stable housing, and increased opportunities for their children.

Correction: This report incorrectly stated the number of TANF recipients who participated in the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Paving Access Trails to Higher Security (PATHS) program in FY 2008. The correct number of PATHS participants in FY 2008 was 465 or 4 percent of the adult caseload.