Testimony of Kate Coventry at the Budget Oversight Hearing on The Department of Human Services, April 24, 2015

Chairwoman Alexander and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry, and I am a policy analyst with 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 testify in support of the mayor’s proposal to extend Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) income and employment assistance by one year for more than 6,000 vulnerable families with 13,000 children who were scheduled be cut off of TANF in October. This extension will give Mayor Bowser and her new human services leadership a year to address a TANF program that has improved in recent years but still faces challenges to serving families well. Imposing the existing time limit under current circumstances would put children at risk of hardship and raise serious questions of fairness. That’s because:

TANF employment services are inadequate. Families wait up to 11 months to get into DC’s TANF employment preparation services, with their time clock ticking. In Maryland, the time clock does not run when families do not receive services. 

DC’s time limit fails to recognize the complex lives of many poor families. Forty-four states recognize that some families need more time to move to self-sufficiency. But DC’s rigid time limit has no exceptions. Policies elsewhere reflect that parents who remain on TANF for long periods often suffer from mental health challenges, developmental disabilities or other problems that are difficulty to identify. The Department of Human Services recently acknowledged that many TANF recipients “have unexposed or undiagnosed barriers that may prohibit them from engaging in services.“[1]

These families already receive very low benefits, just $152 for a family of three, and yet most have not replaced lost TANF income with earnings, suggesting they face significant barriers to work. These families need extra time to address these barriers so they can find and keep employment.

Cutting these families off of TANF is also unfair because it punishes families who are doing all they can to get a job. The time limit will cut families off even when parents are fully complying with job preparation requirements but cannot find a job. The District has recovered from the recession, but wage and job growth have been very uneven. Low-wage workers have seen their wages fall, and workers with less than a college degree face unemployment rates that are far higher than they were in 2007. About 18 percent of residents with a high school diploma are unemployed, compared with 10 percent in 2007 before start of the recession.[2] Many parents timing off of TANF are doing everything they can but simply cannot find a job or secure enough hours at work to make ends meet.

Without benefits, many families will fall into deeper poverty. 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.[3]

Poverty affects children negatively in ways that make it harder to succeed in school and in later life. Poor children are more likely than other children to experience “toxic stress” that disrupts brain development.[4] They are more likely to suffer from health problems like asthma, developmental delays, and learning disabilities. And they are more likely to have mental health and behavioral problems that make it difficult to succeed in school. Poor children are more likely to drop out of high school and become teen parents. These effects last into adulthood, meaning poor children are much more likely to become poor adults.[5]

A loss of benefits also would greatly diminish a family’s ability to make progress toward employment or toward addressing other barriers. Parents would not be able to focus on the activities that could help them get employment because they would be struggling each day to meet their family’s most basic needs. It would be difficult for parents to even pay for the bus fare to get to these activities.

DCFPI recommends that the Council support the mayor’s proposal because it includes important efforts to better understand the needs of TANF families, which will then inform changes in services and in the time limit policy. It will:

  • Develop a fundamental understanding of long-term TANF participants: The Department of Human Services will support research on a group of DC’s long-term welfare recipients to better understand their characteristics and needs, and it will conduct thorough assessment of all families once they are within one year of reaching the time limit.
  • Provide new services for families with multiple barriers: The mayor plans to expand access to employment services in 2016, while taking time to develop new service options for 2017 and beyond, such as closely linking employment and mental health services.
  • Create hardship extensions for families in certain circumstances: Starting in FY 2017 the District will give extensions to families that meet conditions that warrant a time limit extension.

This plan will allow the District to create a TANF program that balances the goals of providing financial stability to families in need and keeping children out of deep poverty, while also helping parents move to greater independence and economic self-sufficiency.

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



[1] Department of Human Services. FY 2016 Budget Request Fact Sheet on the TANF Employment Program

[2] Left Behind: DC’s Economic Recovery is Not Reaching All Residents. Ed Lazere and Marco Guzman. DCFPI. January 2015. https://www.dcfpi.org/left-behind-dcs-economic-recovery-is-not-reaching-all-residents

[3] The Welfare Time Limit in Minnesota: A survey of families who lost MFIP eligibility as a result of the five-year time limit. Ramona Scarpace, , Karen Jung, and Leslie Crichton (2003). Minnesota DHS.

[4] The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty: Pathways and Impacts: Q&As with Drs. Greg Duncan, Katherine Magnuson, Tom Boyce and Jack Shonkoff. developingchild.harvard.edu/index.php/download_file/-/view/623/“Ž

[5] The Foreseeable Harm from Governor Brown’s Proposal to Reduce CalWorks Grants for Children by Michael Herald and Jessica Bartholow. March 2011.