Sixteen-thousand DC families’including one of three children in the city’participate in DC’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. While TANF is critically important to the future of DC’s children, families often don’t receive the help they need to move successfully to work, according to a new report by SOME, Inc. (So Others Might Eat) and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. The report, Voices for Change: Perspectives on Strengthening Welfare-to-Work from DC TANF Recipients, comes at a time when rising unemployment is making it particularly difficult for families to find work.
The report is based on focus groups with TANF recipients, interviews with service providers, and administrative data from the District’s Income Maintenance Administration (IMA). Its examination of the DC TANF program’s performance finds:
- TANF employment services are one-size-fits-all and don’t address individuals’ specific skills, barriers, and goals. DC, like many states, uses a “work first” approach, which emphasizes moving TANF recipients into jobs quickly. But this often steers parents to low-wage jobs’$9 an hour, on average’and more than half who find a job are no longer employed within six months.
- Most TANF recipients do not know about or have access to services to address barriers to work. TANF recipients often face multiple problems affecting their ability to obtain stable employment, including domestic violence, substance abuse, or physical and mental health issues. Yet focus group recipients said that they are often not informed about TANF-funded support services, and most do not get the help they need. For example, 20 percent of TANF recipients are victims of domestic violence, but only one percent receives domestic violence services.
- Families cannot meet their basic needs on the TANF benefit. DC’s maximum monthly TANF benefit is just $428 for a family of three. Even with food stamps and careful budgeting, focus group participants explained that they run out of funds before the end of the month. Among the two-thirds of DC TANF recipients who get no housing assistance, many use their entire TANF grant for rent.
The report recommends a number of steps that can be taken to help TANF families, including:
- Ensuring all TANF recipients receive an assessment, orientation, and referrals to appropriate services. IMA should improve its orientation to make all applicants aware of their options within TANF, and implement enhanced assessments, using specialized staff, to connect recipients with services.
- Expanding options beyond “work first” to include additional vocational job training and education services. IMA will revise its TANF employment vendor contracts in 2010, an opportunity it should use to increase the availability of education and hard skills training.
- Providing an adequate income for TANF recipients. The District should increase TANF cash benefits to help families meet their basic living costs and provide continuing support to families as they transition to employment.
Implementing these recommendations will help to ensure that TANF recipients have access to 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.