Chairman Mendelson and other members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Ed Lazere, and I am the Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI promotes budget and policy choices to expand economic opportunity for DC residents and reduce income inequality in the District of Columbia, through independent research and policy recommendations.
I am here today to encourage the Council to take steps this budget season to address DC’s rigid TANF time limit that puts thousands of vulnerable families at risk. The proposed FY 2017 budget prevents families from being cut off for one year, but it leaves families 6,200 families and 13,000 children in limbo — with monthly benefits of just $154 a month in 2017 and the prospect of losing all assistance a year from now.
DCFPI hopes the Council will go further this spring, by adopting permanent time limit reforms and funding as many of these reforms as possible in the FY 2017 budget.
Getting DC’s TANF time limit right is the most critical issue affecting the well-being of low-income children in my 15 years at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. TANF ensures that children have their most basic needs met despite the economic hardships their parents face. We know from other states that strict time limits often push vulnerable families deeper into poverty, with devastating consequences for children. We also know that policies that help stabilize the incomes of low-income families have long-lasting positive effects on a child’s ability to succeed in school, get a high school or college degree, and find work as an adult.
It thus is critical for the District to adopt a TANF time limit policy focused on stabilizing families in dire situations.
DC’s time limit is one of the strictest in the nation, cutting off all families who reach the time limit, regardless of their circumstances, with no chance to ever receive assistance again. In contrast, 44 states offer extensions to give parents more time to deal with issues like domestic violence or caring for a family member with a disability. And six states go further to protect families. New York has a separate state cash assistance program that continues to provide benefits to families after the time limit. California, Indiana, and Oregon allow children to continue to receive benefits but remove the parent from the TANF. Vermont and Maryland allow families participating in work activities to continue to receive benefits past the time limits.
The District’s rigid time limit is of concern because a large body of research confirms that families reaching time limits often have substantial problems, including high rates of mental illness, domestic violence, and disabilities. Research from other states finds that the vast majority of families cut off TANF are not able to replace lost benefits with employment income, leaving many to lead chaotic and unstable lives. This leads to increases in homelessness and child neglect as families cannot meet their children’s most basic needs.
- Most do not secure steady employment: A Maryland Study found that families who left TANF because of time limits work in fewer quarters in the year after leaving TANF than other TANF leavers do. In Washington, only 45 percent were working three years after their case closed due to a time limit.
- Many experience housing instability or homelessness: A Maine study found that 1 in 5 families reported being evicted; having to relocate, often to overcrowded living conditions; or needing to go to a homeless shelter. Washington State found that families who left due to time limits had the highest rates of homelessness — 20 percent were homeless at the end of the three-year follow-up; this was a full six percentage points higher than families who were on TANF for more than a year but left on their own.
- Parents struggle to keep their families together: When parents are cut off of TANF without a secure job, their children are more likely to be abused or neglected and end up in foster care.
- Child development is threatened: When TANF benefits are cut off from mothers of preschoolers, their children are three times more likely to have serious behavior problems than other young children. Children are also more likely to repeat a grade and less likely to be engaged by their parents in important learning activities like reading when they are subject to strict TANF
The time to act to reform DC’s time limit is now. The vast majority of TANF families do not receive housing assistance and use TANF to stay housed. Keeping 6,200 families at $154 a month leaves families in an unhealthy limbo and at great risk of housing instability. Instead, the DC Council should act now to adopt a permanent time limit extension policy, and to fund as many extensions as possible in this budget. This will restore TANF’s full benefits for some vulnerable families, bringing them added stability, and will put the District on a path to implement a full policy in FY 2018.
Time limit reforms should include creating sensible extensions for families who need more time based on their circumstances. And they should include adopting the approach of California and other states that continue to provide assistance to children after the time limit, to ensure that the needs of children are protected. The key extensions to consider include the following:
- Turning current exemptions into extensions: DC’s TANF time clock stops when a family faces certain circumstances that make looking for work hard, like domestic violence. But if a mother who has used up her 60 months and left TANF later on needs help to flee domestic violence, she cannot get TANF assistance. Creating extensions to match current exemptions would solve this.
- Parents in education or training: Parents should be able to get an extension to allow them to complete training or education.
- Families participating in TANF work preparation services or otherwise complying with their TANF plan. TANF families develop an Individual Responsibility Plan, which details steps they will take to move toward employment or otherwise achieve greater self-sufficiency. Parents who are doing what is expected of them in their plan should not be cut off when they reach the time limit.
- Families in crisis: Families experiencing homelessness, for example, should not face the further instability of losing cash assistance that would make it harder to resolve their crisis.
- Assistance to children no matter what: The District should continue assistance to children when a family reaches a time limit without qualifying for an extension. This is important to ensuring that children’s basic needs are met. And it is especially important in DC, since our TANF program currently fails to identify many families who should be receiving exemptions.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I am happy to take any questions.
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 Patton, Deleena, Melissa Ford Shah, Barbara E.M. Felver, Kathryn Beall (2015). TANF Caseload Decline: The Well-Being of Parents and Children Leaving WorkFirst in Washington State, Report to the DSHS Economic Services Administration, Office of the Assistant Secretary and the Community Services Division. https://www.dshs.wa.gov/node/10898/
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