Poor Children on the Budget Chopping Block: Fenty’s Budget Deficit Plan Would Cut TANF Benefits for Families with Children

The single largest program cut in Mayor Fenty’s recent budget plan is a $6.2 million reduction in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program – which provides cash assistance and job readiness services to low-income families with children.  The TANF cut is part of a budget plan with $102 million in cuts, over half of which would fall on services for low-income residents. 

TANF is a critical program, providing support to one-third of the District’s children, including many families who lost jobs in the economic downturn.  The Mayor’s budget proposal would cut monthly cash benefits for these families if they do not meet requirements to participate in work activities – and for the first time in DC’s history, could eliminate benefits entirely for some families.  The proposal also would increase benefits for those who meet the requirements.

The goal of these provisions is to encourage more TANF parents to prepare for employment, but the approach is seriously flawed.  Rather than incentivize families to move toward work, the new penalties are likely to push vulnerable families deeper into poverty.

The proposal does little to address DC’s inadequate TANF services.  Some 90 percent of TANF recipients face at least one barrier to work, and most face multiple problems – such as domestic violence, a mental or physical health issue, or low levels of education.  Yet services for families facing barriers to work are not available in many cases.  For example, an estimated 20 percent of TANF recipients have experienced domestic violence, but fewer than one percent received an exemption from work requirements that such victims are eligible for.

Rather than focusing its energy and resources on improving services that can help TANF families address their personal barriers and gain job skills, the Mayor’s proposal would cut benefits for families who do not – or are not able – to comply with work requirements.  The experiences in other states show that “sanctioning” families does not result in greater compliance with work requirements or better employment outcomes.  Instead, steep sanctions tend to fall on families that have the most personal problems and the greatest barriers to work – and result in greater hardships for very poor families with children.

It is unfortunate that Mayor Fenty chose to balance the budget with a failed policy that would hurt poor children.  The DC Council should reject this proposal and focus instead on working with TANF recipients, policy experts, and advocates to re-design the TANF program to provide services that truly help recipients gain the skills needed to leave welfare for work.