The District started rolling out a substantial re-design of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the welfare-to-work program for families with children, in late 2011.  The TANF reforms hold promise for greatly improving the city’s efforts to help families move toward employment and to otherwise become more stable.  DC’s prior TANF services have been criticized for failing to identify and address the substantial employment barriers faced by many families and for providing only limited work readiness services.  Those limitations have contributed to low participation in TANF work preparation activities in the District and to a significant number of TANF families receiving benefits for long periods of time. 

While the new system will greatly improve TANF education and training services, its success will be hindered by a recently adopted time limit policy that clashes with the employment reforms rather than complements them.  For families that have received TANF assistance for more than 60 months, benefits will be reduced to just $257 a month for a family of three in October 2012.  This will leave thousands of families with inadequate resources to meet the most basic needs.  In many cases, the time limit cuts will go into effect before parents have had the chance to take advantage of new employment services.  Moreover, the time limit policy will reduce benefits even for families who need time to address personal barriers ‘ such as domestic violence ‘ before they can prepare for work.  This is different from most states, which provide temporary time limit exemptions for selected groups who are not immediately ready for training and employment. 

Success of the TANF re-design effort has large implications for the District’s families with children, given that one-third of DC children are on TANF, and that unemployment in the city is at the highest level in 30 years.  There is substantial research showing that financial stability and poverty among families has a negative effect on early childhood development and success in school.  High poverty in the District creates challenges for DC’s efforts to improve public school outcomes and contributes to other social ills. 

Key elements of the new system include a more thorough assessment of clients’ needs, enhanced partnerships with other District agencies, and a new array of employment and training options for TANF recipients.  At the heart of the new system is a “universal engagement” approach, under which every TANF parent is expected to participate in some activity to either prepare for work or to address personal or family problems.  Universal engagement recognizes that these expectations need to be tailored to the varied levels of education, work experience, and other conditions that affect the ability of TANF families to work.  While some parents may be ready to look for work right away, others may benefit from training first and others may need to address serious barriers ‘ such as low literacy or mental illness ‘ before even being ready for training.

There are early signs that the new system will result in a substantial increase in work participation among TANF recipients.   The Department of Human Services (DHS) created a pilot for the new system in mid-2011, and the program resulted in a ten-fold increase in the share of TANF recipients participating in work activities.  This suggests that the low rate of participation in TANF employment activities in recent years largely reflects the fact that TANF services were not well targeted to the individual needs of families.

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