Testimony of Ed Lazere, Executive Director, At the Public Hearing on PR19-593: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Sanction Policy Approval Resolution of 2012

Chairman Graham and 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 engages in research and public education on the fiscal and economic health of the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on how policies impact low-and-moderate income families.  

I am here today to comment on the TANF sanction policy approval resolution.   My colleague Kate Coventry is testifying on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Time Limit Amendment Act of 2012.  

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute opposed the legislation to make DC’s TANF sanctions more steep, including full family sanctions, given the substantial body of research that sanctions don’t tend to improve compliance. Instead, sanctions tend to fall on families with the greatest personal barriers and the least personal resources, and many who are cut off due to sanctions never return.  Full-family sanctions policies across the U.S. have led us to a point where TANF serves only a fraction of poor children.  In 1996, when the federal TANF law was adopted, TANF provided cash aid to 68 families for every 100 poor families with children. By 2010, TANF provided cash assistance to only 27 families for every 100 in poverty.  

Given that, DCFPI believes that a full-family sanction policy in DC should give the District a tool to hold families accountable for making progress toward employment, but it also should be designed so that the strictest penalty ‘ cutting families with children off entirely ‘ should be imposed rarely. We are encouraged that Secretary Berns has noted that no family was cut off from assistance due to sanctions when he ran the welfare program in El Paso County, Colorado, and that Mr. Berns has stated that a sanction should be seen as a failure for both DHS and the client.  

But the TANF sanction rules need to create protections for families with children for the long-term and should not be dependent on the careful monitoring of the DHS director.  

There are some aspects of the proposed final rules that could lead to an inappropriately high number of full-family sanctions.   Some of our concerns relate to the procedures for imposing sanctions, and some concerns relate to the design of the sanctions.  

Concerns with Sanctions Procedures  

Perhaps most important, there is no formal role in the proposed regulations for DHS to review each sanction proposed by a TANF family’s primary service provider, which will be a contracted service provider or a non-DHS DC government agency. DHS has noted that they will review every proposed sanction, but that review process needs to be included in the regulations themselves. The proposed rules state that DHS “shall” impose a sanction recommended by a provider, but we recommend that this be changed to DHS “may” impose a sanction if it is deemed appropriate after a review by the agency.  The rules should specify that DHS should assess provider efforts to contact client, look for signs of possible good cause exemption or work participation exemption, and look for signs that the Individual Responsibility Plan may not match the client’s abilities.  

In addition, TANF clients should be able to seek a good cause exemption without having to have provide “hard copy” documentation as indicated in the proposed final rule. While the regulations can state a preference for written documentation, they should allow for other means of documentation when written is not available, as other public benefit programs allow.  A client who cannot get a letter from a former employer, landlord, etc. should not be punished.  

Another procedural concern is that the rules allow a sanction to go through after three phone calls and a letter is sent to a TANF family’s last known phone number and address.  Given how often phone numbers change and clients have to move, a family could face a full-family sanction with no actual notice.  The rules should allow a good cause exemption for failure to respond if a family can show they were not contacted, and the rules should require actual contact phone or in-person contact with a client before sanction process can start.  

Finally, the regulations should apply going forward and not to anybody who has not been through a new orientation and assessment. The proposed regulations would allow families sanctioned under the current policy to receive a full family sanction in cases when the family had not been notified that the District now imposes full family sanctions.  

Concerns with the Sanctions Design   

Under the proposed sanctions policy, the first sanction level is the same as under current policy: removing the parent from the TANF case for benefit determination purposes.  The second level sanction, for those who do not come into compliance after Level 1, is to cut the family off TANF entirely for one month.  DCFPI suggests creating an intermediate sanction prior to full-family sanction.  A 50 percent benefit cut, for example, would provide a clear wake-up call to families without eliminating their income entirely.   

In addition, the proposed Level Three TANF sanction is to eliminate TANF benefits for six months.  If the goal of sanctions is to get clients to take more seriously their need to comply with TANF rules, a shorter sanction period would be reasonable, or allowing clients to remove the sanction after a period of compliance.  

Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I’m happy to answer any questions.