Testimony of Linnea Lassiter at the Budget Oversight of the Department of Human Services on May 3, 2017

Good morning. I’d like to thank Chairwoman Nadeau and members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify. I would also like to thank Mayor Bowser and DHS Director Laura Zeilinger for their leadership on TANF reform and convening the Working Group.

My name is Linnea Lassiter, and I am a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI is a research and advocacy organization that promotes budget and policy choices to reduce both income inequality and racial inequity across the District, while expanding economic opportunity for low-income DC residents.

DCFPI is in strong support of funding Bill 22-0227the TANF Child Benefit Protection Amendment Act of 2017, which would eliminate the District’s 60-month time limit and divide a family’s TANF grant into two separate portions: one designated for children within the family and the other for the parents. Although we support this legislation, we strongly recommend that the Council amend the Bill to prevent families from having their entire TANF case terminated due to a Level 3 sanction exceeding 12 months. Assuming this language surrounding sanctions is addressed, we urge the Council to adopt the Child Benefit Protection Act’s approach and amend the BSA to reflect the bill’s language.

We also support expediting TANF benefits level increases, as proposed in Bill 22-52, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Assistance Level Increase Amendment Act of 2017. However, our primary focus is ensuring children’s needs are met through designated income assistance protected from sanctions, and therefore, we recommend this bill only be funded after sufficient funding has been appropriated for Bill 22-0227. Furthermore, we encourage Councilmember Gray to amend the Bill to include TANF families who have received TANF for 60 months or more as well, based on the significant barriers to employment that this population often faces.

As the Committee knows, TANF is a critical safety net for low-income District residents, particularly those who face extreme barriers to finding and maintaining a living-wage job and achieving economic self-sufficiency. DCFPI is deeply committed to protecting the needs of children receiving TANF. Therefore, my testimony today will focus on why consistent monthly benefits through TANF are so critical to the well-being and healthy development of low-income children, and why the Child Benefit Protection Act is better suited to accomplish this goal than the Mayor’s current budget proposal. 

The Mayor’s Budget

Mayor Bowser allocated $8.1 million in her FY18 proposed budget towards TANF reform, much of which follows the recommendation set forth by the DHS TANF Working Group, convened in 2016, such as eliminating the 60-month time limit and creating a bifurcated family benefit in which a portion of the grant is designated towards children and cannot be reduced. However, unlike the Working Group’s recommendation of an 80/20 split between the child and parent benefit portions – which IS reflected in the Child Benefit Protection Act – the Mayor’s proposal designates just 50 percent towards children in the family, meaning that only half of a family’s TANF grant is protected from sanctions and reserved for the needs of children. This means that for a family of three – which typically consists of a single mother and two children – their full 2018 benefit of $576 can be reduced by up to $288 due to parental noncompliance, which is a significant loss in family income and threatens parents’ ability to meet their children’s basic needs.

Some argue that the 50/50 split will incentivize parents to comply with TANF work activities more than the smaller sanctions associated with the 80/20 split of the Child Benefit Protection Act. However, a large body of research indicates that work requirements and sanctions do not reduce poverty, and in some cases, actually push families further into poverty.[i] This can have devastating effects on children, such as increased likelihood of child hunger, toxic stress, and dropping out of high school.[ii]

Many disadvantaged individuals in the District want to work, but can’t find jobs for reasons that work requirements don’t solve, such as a lack of sufficient skills or work experience, having a criminal conviction record or other personal challenges that result in employment discrimination, as well as not having the social    connections to help them find job openings and get hired.

The challenges this population faces in obtaining living wage jobs, lends support to the need for a greater proportion of a family’s monthly benefit be exempt from sanctions. For this reason we are in full support of the “TANF Child Benefit Protection Amendment Act of 2017” and its goal of protecting children’s’ basic needs and encouraging economic stability for low-income families in the District, based on the DHS Working Group’s recommendations. DCFPI asks that the Council please take this into consideration and to amend the Budget Support Act’s language to reflect this bill’s language.

[i] http://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/work-requirements-dont-cut-poverty-evidence-shows

[ii] https://www.dcfpi.org/tanf-is-a-lifeline-lets-protect-dcs-children-and-help-their-parents-succeed