Budget Cuts Threaten Benefits for Disabled Residents

It has been a tough budget year for DC’s Department of Human Services’and an equally difficult one for the residents it serves. The department’s budget was cut by $24 million this year, a reduction of 15 percent. Last week, Mayor Fenty ordered another $2.8 million cut to close a budget gap.

At Wednesday’s agency performance hearing, those numbers were put in context when the department’s director–as well as a number of public witnesses–explained that the cuts don’t just reduce the number of paper clips ordered but put a halt to critical services that improve the lives of our fellow Washingtonians.

At the same time the agency has been forced to tighten its belt, it has been overwhelmed with demand for its services. The Great Recession has forced many DC residents to apply for food stamps, health insurance and cash assistance. The lines to do so have been longer and more intimidating because the department closed two front-line service centers and eliminated nearly 100 eligibility determination positions to save money.

Think of it this way: If your local market had more customers calling and waiting in line, would it reduce its services and workforce?

Other examples were discussed Wednesday.  The recent $2.8 million cut appears to put in jeopardy plans to assist DC residents with disabilities. The Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) program provides a monthly cash benefit to individuals with disabilities who have applied for federal disability assistance and are waiting for their applications to be approved, a process that can sometimes take years. Because disability prevents these residents from working, IDA provides their only source of income to pay for rent and other basic necessities.

 The city stopped providing benefits for new IDA applicants last June, creating a waiting list of over 1,000 residents, according to Scott McNeilly of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. On Wednesday, Human Services Director Clarence Carter said the agency will not be able to help many of those currently on the wait list anytime soon because the city plans to cap the number of participants at 1,500 residents.

Maintaining a waitlist defeats the purpose of IDA, which is to assist residents temporarily while they are waiting for their federal application to be approved. It also threatens the long-term viability of the program because the federal government reimburses the city once an application for federal benefits is approved.  Those monies are used by DC to pay for subsequent IDA participants.

It can no longer be denied that budget cuts are affecting the ability of the Department of Human Services and other DC agencies to provide core services during these difficult economic times. As the District’s leaders struggle to address the worst economic crisis in decades, it does not make sense to make repeated cuts to agencies that provide front-line, essential assistance to our neighbors most affected by the downturn.