Testimony of Aleksandra Gajdeczka, Policy Analyst, At the Public Hearing on the Fiscal Year 2012 Agency Budget Hearing for the Department of Human Services District of Columbia Committee on Human Services

Good morning Chairman Graham and members and staff of the committee. 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.

My testimony focuses on the TANF time limits included in Mayor Gray’s budget.  I would like to put the problematic nature of Mayor Gray’s proposal in context by offering some data on what other states have done with regard to time limits, and to discuss what a more reasonable time limit policy might look like.

Other states and time limits

First, I would like to spend a minute talking about how other states have handled time limits. When states began implementing time limits on TANF, every state that did so started the time clock at zero for all families. Many states that have implemented time limits since then, like Michigan and Oregon, have also started the clock at zero. This makes sense, since the goal of a time limit is to give families a set period in which to prepare for employment or other stable, long-term solution.  In contrast, the Mayor’s proposal would count time already on TANF, even before this rule existed. This means that almost 7,000 families would see benefits cut by 40 percent this October, with just a few months’ notice.

The proposed time limit policy includes no extensions and only two exemptions — one for child-only cases and one for the few hundred families participating in POWER, which is a program for a portion of the TANF families where the adult has a disability. Of the states with time limits, 30 offer at least some exemptions to the time limit, and 44 offer extensions. I’d like to break that down a little further.

  • 15 states offer exemptions for a disability or caring for someone with a disability.
  • 15 offer exemptions for victims of domestic violence.
  • Seven offer exemptions for elderly caretakers, often grandparents.
  • 16 offer exemptions for parents who are minors.
  • Other common exemptions include pregnancy, lack of child care, caring for a young child, or being enrolled in school

The language in the Mayor’s budget includes no new exemptions and no extensions.  If the Council chose to add some back in, they would not be able to be applied to time already spent on TANF, because no such historical information exists. Even if the historical information were available, the current assessment process for TANF participants is inadequate and often fails to identify barriers to work.  For example, an estimated 20 percent of DC TANF recipients experienced domestic violence in 2009, while less than one percent received domestic violence services from the TANF provider.

Features of a “fair” time limit policy

I have mentioned before that DCFPI does not support TANF time limits. We believe that the best way to achieve better employment outcomes and stability for TANF parents is by investing in the tools that help parents prepare for work and address barriers.  With a new sanctions policy soon to be implemented that will allow the city to terminate assistance to families that are not complying with TANF work participation requirements ‘  which will lead to an estimated $3 million in benefit reductions in 2012 ‘  it is not clear that a time limit policy is also needed at this time. It is worth noting that Maryland’s TANF program does not enforce a time limit but instead relies solely on sanctions to incentivize program participation.

But if a TANF time limit becomes inevitable, we would like to offer a few critical features that should be included.

  • Starting the clock at zero: Starting time clocks prospectively would allow TANF families the time needed to prepare for work and time to benefit from DHS’s redesign of the TANF program to promote work and individualized services.  Also, setting time clocks moving forward would allow the city to stop the clock for appropriate exemptions, periodically notify families of their status on the time limit clock, and create an environment where the temporary nature of TANF actually helps in case management and moving families off the program and into a stable, long-term solution.
  • Extensions and exemptions: All states exempt some families from time limits, and most states extend time limits under certain circumstances.  As noted, Maryland, for example, does not cut families off at the time limit if parents are complying with work preparation requirements.  Mayor Gray’s budget offers no new exemptions and would cut benefits even for victims of domestic violence, children being cared for by a grandparent, and parents caring for a child with a disability.
  • Full upfront and ongoing assessments: Most long-term TANF recipients face serious personal challenges, including depression, low literacy, and domestic violence — and DC officials acknowledge that parents have not been assessed well or directed to the right supportive services.  DHS plans to improve assessments, but has admitted that it will take 18 months to assess all long-term TANF recipients. It would not be reasonable to cut benefits before these assessments have even occurred.

It is important to note, though, that a better time limit policy would be prospective, meaning that no savings would be possible in 2012.  Therefore, the $4.9 million in anticipated savings would need to be added back in to the budget.

And finally, we would like to recommend that the District commission an in-depth study of the characteristics and needs of families who would be impacted by a time limit, such as the one conducted by Mathematica Research in the St Paul, Minnesota area in 2006. We estimate that such a study would cost about $100,000, and would be a smart investment for the District.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.