Testimony of Aleksandra Gajdeczka at the Public Hearing on the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act of 2010

Good morning, Chairman Wells and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Aleksandra Gajdeczka, and I am a Policy Analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI engages in research and public education on the fiscal and economic health of the District of Columbia, with particular emphasis on policies that affect low- and moderate-income residents.

DCFPI supports the TANF Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act, and we are thrilled that you are taking such positive steps toward a more effective and transparent TANF program in the District. 

Today, I’d like to focus my testimony on three points. First, I will discuss how the detailed assessment requirement will help connect TANF recipients to the services they need, thus improving outcomes and program efficiency. Second, I will suggest that the expansion of definitions on permitted educational activities is a positive step, but only if the District also expands services to match the new definitions. And third, I will talk about how new data reporting requirements will allow rigorous program evaluation and improvement. 

1. Individual Assessment Requirement 

For many TANF recipients, the first step toward greater stability or self-sufficiency is addressing barriers to work such as low levels of education, domestic violence, and child care issues. However, we believe that a very small portion of recipients who face these barriers actually receive services for them.  For example, we estimate that 20 percent of DC TANF recipients experienced domestic violence in 2009, while less than one percent received domestic violence services from the TANF provider. 

Other TANF recipients face educational barriers, such as low educational achievement, low literacy, or limited cognitive ability. Some of these individuals would benefit from specialized educational opportunities that can put them on a more productive path. With a more robust assessment process such as the one outlined in this bill, many TANF recipients could be connected with the specific services they need to start moving beyond these barriers. 

We are encouraged by DHS’ plans to develop and implement a more robust assessment tool that screens applicants for barriers and assesses skills before referring them to vendors. This assessment process can help connect clients to the services they need early on, so that their time on TANF can be spent productively. 

2. Definitions of Education Activities 

As it currently stands, the District’s TANF program offers a range of education and training options. However, most recipients are pointed to the District’s TANF Employment Program (or “TEP”) vendors. These vendors offer a one-size-fits-all job readiness program designed to move clients quickly into jobs. This approach is helpful to some TANF recipients, but others would benefit from more extensive education or training programs in order to gain long-term, stable employment. 

The bill adds more detailed definitions of federally-permissible educational opportunities under the TANF program. DC’s current TANF contracts do not take advantage of all federally permissible work activities, which means that some individuals who could be covered under federal funding are being covered by local funds instead. This is occurring where TANF recipients participate in these activities outside of the system or disengage entirely because the services they need are not offered through TEP. 

The new language is a welcome addition to the code, but will only help recipients if services are expanded to match the new definitions. IMA can help this happen by ensuring that new vendor contracts include incentives for properly placing TANF recipients in the correct service or program’even  if the proper placement is in a longer-term program, rather than pushing them into a job as quickly as possible. 

We understand that the new request for proposals for TANF contracts will take a step away from the “work first” approach and offer incentives for proper placement of clients in appropriate services, thereby putting more recipients on a productive path. 

3. Performance Measures 

And finally, this bill outlines a set of performance data against which programmatic success will be measured. These data include the number and characteristics of TANF participants being referred to various activities and services, wages and longevity of employment gained through vendors, and a variety of other measures. We believe that this sort of accountability standard can only be a good thing, and that asking vendors to track their work through relatively simple metrics about program usage and success will give the District a powerful tool with which to assess progress and effectiveness. 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today, and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.