Testimony of Ed Lazere at the Public Hearing on the District of Columbia Public Assistance Amendment Act of 2010

Chairman Wells, 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 engages in research and public education on the fiscal and economic health of the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on policies that affect low- and moderate-income residents. 

The Public Assistance Amendment Act appears to be intended to shine a spotlight on DC’s welfare-to-work efforts, and ultimately to improve them.  While I support this goal, research strongly suggests that the key element of the proposed bill — a 60-month lifetime limit for TANF assistance — is the wrong prescription and could have very harmful consequences for DC’s poorest families with children.  We look forward to working with you to find other ways to improve welfare-to-work efforts that are more likely to help families achieve success. 

Last year, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and SOME, Inc. (So Others Might Eat) issued a report based largely on focus groups with 35 TANF recipients.  We took time to understand their experiences on TANF — what worked and what didn’t — and we also reviewed underlying TANF policies and program data.  That work leads us to the following four points. 

First, DC’s current TANF system falls short in numerous ways, particularly in its ability to assess client barriers and in the range of services available to TANF recipients.  The focus group participants told us that they felt uncomfortable talking with eligibility workers about sensitive topics such as domestic violence.   The TANF recipients also told us that they were unaware of many TANF services that were available to them, and many were surprised when our researchers listed the potential services.  Finally, the focus group participants told us that DC’s one-size-fits-all approach to employment services under TANF ‘ with nearly all recipients referred to a TANF vendor providing basic job readiness services ‘ fails to meet their education and training needs.  Thus, it is not surprising that very few TANF recipients get help with domestic violence, substance abuse, or other problems, very few end up in education or skills-training programs, and most who leave welfare for work end up in low-wage jobs. 

Fortunately, the Department of Employment Services is currently undertaking significant TANF reforms, including a new assessment system to identify client strengths and needs, and a broader range of education and employment options to reflect the varying needs of different recipients.  We believe that this new system holds great promise, and that the best way to improve TANF services at this time is to make sure that these reforms are fully and effectively implemented. 

A second point is that a time limit ‘ of any length ‘  is an arbitrary accountability tool that could cut families off from assistance even when a parent has been doing what is expected of her.  The bill would eliminate assistance, for example, even if a parent is meeting TANF work participation requirements at the time he or she reaches 60 months. Or consider the example of a mother who used up most of her 60 months years ago, then went back to work for several years, but later lost her job in an economic downturn.  Under the proposed bill, she and her family could lose eligibility for TANF in the middle of an economic downturn, leaving them with no income.  Given the record number of adults now facing long-term unemployment as a result of the Great Recession, many jobless DC residents would likely be timing off benefits this year if a 5-year time limit had been established in the past. 

Third, DCFPI thinks it is important to recognize that steady work is not a realistic expectation for all, even if it can be expected for many.  It is worth remembering that anyone who becomes a parent remains one for 18 years or more.  A 5-year TANF time limit thus requires all parents to remain off welfare for most of the time that they are parents.  Yet as research from Donna Pavetti and colleagues demonstrates, the adults who remain on TANF the longest often have very serious personal barriers that affect employment, such as low IQ, severe depression or other mental health problems, and very limited social networks.  Beyond that, research from DCFPI released this fall shows that the employment rate for DC adults with a high school diploma has fallen to the lowest level in 30 years, as our economy has shifted increasingly to being dominated by jobs that require post-secondary degrees.  The combination of residents with employment barriers and structural shifts in our economy suggests that unemployment will be fairly common for at least some DC residents, who will find themselves moving in and out of low-pay, low benefit jobs.  TANF serves as a safety net for these adults and their children. 

Finally, we recommend that the District undertake an effort to learn more about the issues faced by long-term recipients ‘ so that we can offer them the appropriate kind of help.  Councilmember Barry, the introducer of this bill, has asked for more information on the circumstances and characteristics of TANF recipients.  The reality is that we currently know little, beyond basic family demographics, whether a family meets a work exemption, or whether they are meeting the TANF work participation requirement.  Work conducted by the Urban Institute nearly a decade ago revealed that most TANF recipients face multiple work barriers, and the Pavetti research noted earlier found that long-term welfare recipients often face very serious problems.  A year and a half ago the District considered full-family  sanctions for families not meeting work requirements, and now we are considering permanently eliminating eligibility after 60 months.  Yet both of these proposals, which create serious risks to the ability of families to support themselves, have been made with little understanding of the issues faced by TANF recipients, why they may not be participating in work activities, and why some have not able to remain off TANF.  Efforts to better understand these families would enable the District to identify a more appropriate set of services to help adults be better parents and to help those who are able to work move into the job market. 

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