When Federal Policy Goes Low, DC Should Stay High

At a time when many DC residents—including those of us at DCFPI—are deeply concerned about the national election outcomes, it’s important to remember that the District has a track record of pursuing its own path. DC was a leader in expanding health insurance well before the Affordable Care Act, for example, and can ensure that our residents maintain health insurance if the ACA is repealed or scaled back. And there are important progressive policies moving forward in DC—including reforming a harmful TANF time limit, creating a paid family leave program for all workers, and mandating fair scheduling for retail and restaurant workers—that would support DC residents and strengthen our economy. Adopting these local solutions will not only help our residents immensely, but would also serve as an important reminder that we still control our destiny.

We hope that the District government will take the following actions:

Reform the TANF Time Limit to Protect Children: Across the nation, strict welfare time limits often hit the families with the most serious challenges. Research shows that most time-limited families are not able to find sustainable employment, and that time limits often push children into extreme poverty. Here in DC, many families on TANF have disabilities or health problems, and many others use welfare as a safety net as they cycle in and out of low-wage, part-time jobs. When they leave TANF, they often do not leave poverty.

That is why a working group convened by the Bowser administration (on which DCFPI served) called for reforming DC’s time limit, which under current law will cut families off after 60 months regardless of their circumstances, with no chance to ever get back on. The working group recommended guaranteeing some level of assistance, with no time limit, to ensure families have resources to meet the needs of their children. It also recommended that a portion of the TANF grant—the parent’s portion—should be cut when parents are not taking steps to prepare for work.

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council should adopt the working group’s recommendation and fund it in the upcoming FY 2018 budget.

Create a Paid Family and Medical Leave Program: The DC Council will soon consider legislation to create a paid family leave program that will help workers when they have a child, face an extended illness, or need to care for an ill relative.

Paid family leave helps workers care for themselves and their family at important moments, while keeping their job and maintaining economic stability. The program will be especially helpful for the city’s most vulnerable workers who often struggle to get back in the job market after a job loss. Promoting family economic stability is important to the city’s future. Poor parents face numerous challenges in creating a nurturing environment for their children, like poor nutrition, unstable and unhealthy housing, and exposure to violence. All of these can have adverse impacts on the physical and cognitive development of children. Children who live in poverty have worse outcomes in a range of areas, including physical and mental health, cognitive development, school achievement, and emotional well-being. On the flip side, modest increases in income for poor families lead to academic and employment gains for children.

For these reasons, the DC Council should adopt the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015.

Adopt Fair Scheduling: Legislation before the DC Council (though recently tabled) would require retail and restaurant employers with more than 40 locations nationwide to offer additional hours to current employees first, before they look for a new hire. It also would ensure that employees get advance notice of their schedules. Encouraging and enforcing these stable work scheduling practices will help hard-working DC residents provide for their families and continue the education they need to advance their careers.

In the new legislative session in January, the City Council should quickly re-introduce and pass the Hours and Scheduling Stability Act of 2015.

Protect Health Insurance: Fifteen years ago, the District created the Healthcare Alliance program to cover low-income residents who were uninsured but could not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. The Alliance helped bring DC’s uninsured rate to one of the lowest in the nation. After the adoption of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), many residents getting care from the Alliance shifted to Medicaid, funded primarily by the federal government. The District has also positioned itself well by choosing to create its own state-based health insurance marketplace, DC Health Link, where moderate- and higher-income folks can purchase health plans.

It is clear that the ACA will be under attack in 2017 and will likely face cutbacks, although there also will be extensive advocacy to preserve its progress in expanding health care coverage.

If the federal government cuts Medicaid, the District should maintain health coverage for affected residents through DC’s Healthcare Alliance program. (The District should also take steps to reduce current barriers to getting on the Alliance.)  And DC should preserve its own marketplace so that individuals and families can continue to more easily access health insurance options.

Looking Ahead to the DC Budget for 2018: The full extent of the changes in the federal landscape will not be clear by the time Mayor Bowser submits her budget for FY 2018—in late March or early April—or even by the time the DC Council approves the budget in June.

The District will need to prepare by making sure it has resources to absorb the federal cuts, and replace services as much as possible. This should include putting tax cuts on hold and establishing plans to use the District’s reserve funds, which have swelled in recent years, or by creating a one-time reserve fund in the FY 2018 budget to cope with cuts.

With these steps, the District can continue to move forward on important efforts to support our residents and our economy—regardless of what the federal government does.


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