Testimony of Kate Coventry, Policy Analyst, At the Public Hearing on B19-704: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Time Limit Amendment Act of 2012

Chairman Graham 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 goals of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Time Limit Amendment Act of 2012 and to offer some suggestions on how to improve this bill to better meet these goals.  

In late 2011, the District of Columbiabegan rolling out a redesign of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to help families move towards employment and become more stable.  Rather than the “one-size fits all” nature of DC’s TANF services up to this point, the new TANF program uses a one-on-one assessment to identify each parent’s barriers to employment and then provide a set of services tailored to these needs. 

This approach has shown promising results.  In spring 2011, the Department of Human Services conducted a pilot of the redesign with 164 TANF families, resulting in a ten-fold increase in the share of TANF recipients participating in work activities.  This was achieved in just 5 weeks, indicating that parents enthusiastically participate in work-related and barrier-removal activities if they are matched to their actual needs. 

But the success of the redesign is at-risk.  DHS needs time to implement this complex new program, but thousands of families face benefit cuts in October.  Most of these families will experience cuts before they have a chance to take advantage of new education and training opportunities.  

Not surprisingly, rolling out a new and more customized employment program takes time. 

  • As of February 23rd, DHS had completed assessments for only 1,830 clients out of the total 15,000+ TANF parents.  The assessment is the only entry point for the new employment program.  On March 9th, DHS estimated that only 225 clients had been referred to new vendors and service providers.
  • DHS estimates that 6,179 families will face a reduction in payments starting October 2012 because they have received benefits for more than 60 months.  A family of three will receive just $257 per month.  As of February 23rd, DHS had only assessed 12 percent of these families facing benefit cuts. 
  • DHS is completing 150 assessments per week. 

There is simply not enough time for DHS to move families into the new employment program before the planned benefits cuts.  This bill addresses this issue by first restoring the 20 percent reduction that clients on TANF for more than 60 months experienced starting in April 2011.  The bill also would provide a reprieve from the benefit cut scheduled for October 2012 by delaying any cuts until October 2013.  This will give many more families the time to access the redesigned services. 

But we are still concerned that some families will not have sufficient time to access the services and achieve financial stability before they face benefit elimination in October 2013.  We ask you to add a provision to give all families a specified amount of time from the date of their new assessment and new signed Individual Responsibility Plan before their benefits are eliminated.   We believe families need should have at least 12 month under the new system ‘ and ideally 24 months ‘ to reach financial stability. 

Additionally this bill recognizes that the current time limit policy lacks the reasonable exemptions most states offer to protect the most vulnerable and allow them the time to deal with serious issues that interfere with their ability to work such as domestic violence, illness, or caring for a family member with a disability.  DC currently exempts these individuals from work activity requirements during affected months with the understanding that they are accessing services to deal with these issues.  But DC does not disregard these months from the time limit, meaning that parents who are dealing with the biggest issues may have little time remaining to prepare for and train for work once they have addressed these issues.  

We believe that the exemptions proposed in the bill are reasonable and should be adopted.  We also believe that to the extent possible, these exemptions should be applied to all clients, regardless of whether their barriers to work occurred in the past or the present.  Why should a parent who begins care for an ill family member this year receive an exemption while a parent who provided such care two years ago  not receive one?  Both have months in which they are unable to prepare for work.  Since DC’s time limit is retroactive ‘ counting months of assistance before the time limit was adopted ‘ it only makes sense that exemptions should be retroactive, too. 

But we are sensitive to difficulties involved in administering exemptions retroactively and do not want to add to ESA’s workload or costs.  We recommend the Council look into these administration challenges further and are hopeful that that using information on a customer’s prior work requirement exemptions to determine prior time limit exemptions would allow for easy administration.  If this still proves difficult to implement, we recommend allowing all parents 24 months from the date of their signed Individual Responsibility Plan before their benefits are eliminated.  This would be a way of recognizing that most parents had months that should not be counted towards the time limit because they were dealing with serious work barriers without requiring ESA to perform special administration.

Finally, we recommend that the Council add a time limit exemption that is provided in Maryland.  TANF families should receive a time limit exemption for any month that DHS does not offer or provide the support services  specified in the parent’s Individual Responsibility Plan (IRP).  Given the current demands for services such as substance abuse treatment, we believe that some parents will have a significant delay before they can access the services needed to overcome their work barriers.  We believe these months should not be counted towards their time limit as the delay is beyond their control. 

DCFPI supports the intent of the proposed legislation and looks forward to working to support efforts that will ensure that the new TANF program is a success by incentivizing work while protecting our most vulnerable families. 

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