A Latino family seeks assistance. (Courtesy photo)
A Latino family seeks assistance. (Courtesy photo)

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More than 15,000 District residents receive city assistance in paying rent and other bills, receiving job training and accessing child care, but a proposed eligibility “cliff” for those who received the assistance for more than five years put those benefits in jeopardy for more than nearly 5,700 families, including over 10,000 children.

With its approval of the 2018 fiscal budget on May 30, the D.C. Council also approved reform of the city’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Based on recommendations of a working group composed of city agencies, service providers and TANF beneficiaries, the Council voted for reforms to the program, but decided to eliminate the cut-off set to take effect Oct. 1. Instead, the Council decided to split TANF benefits into separate portions comprised of 80 percent children and 20 percent parent portions.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s initial budget proposal split the benefit 50-50.

“For families receiving TANF, their children’s expenses are simply nonnegotiable — they cannot be avoided or put off and they do not decrease or disappear just because a family’s benefit has been reduced,” Children’s Law Center Senior Policy Attorney Damon King wrote in testimony to the Council at a budget oversight hearing in May. “Sanctions should never reach a level that cuts into the resources that children need and harms children in the home.”

The 80-20 percent distribution between children and parents intends to incentive parents to comply with the program’s work requirements without harming the children who rely on the benefits.

“This two-generational approach helps improve parents’ abilities to meet the basic needs of their children,” Department of Human Services Director Laura Green Zeilinger testified to the council last month. “Simultaneously, this policy supports parents to achieve their workforce goals by incentivizing full participation in the TANF employment program.”

Ninety-six percent of those subjected to near-loss of TANF benefits were women, most single, with a median age of 33. Nearly three out of four families reside in Wards 6, 7 and 8.

Four out of five customers who received benefits for more than 60 months are not engaged in employment or education, according to the working group’s October report. Two out of five beneficiaries who were employed worked more than 30 hours a week, but half of them made less than $500 every two weeks.

Many cited health issues and lack of work experience and education as barriers to employment.

Only one-third of TANF recipients were pursuing a GED or high school diploma, while another third were enrolled in college.

The average payout for TANF is about $400 a month. After 60 months, the payout is scaled back by about $150 per month. The new plan repeals the scale-back.

D.C. receives an annual TANF award of $92 million in the form of a block grant. The council’s preliminary approval of the budget also appropriated an additional $2.2 million to the TANF program to support the changes.

Federal law puts a 60-month time limit on federally funded TANF awards. Local governments may continue to use federal funds to award the benefits beyond the 60 months for up to 20 percent of its caseload. Any extension beyond that must be funded by the local government.

In 2011, the council enacted a time limit to step down benefits for families who had been on TANF for more than 60 months, rather than a full elimination of benefits. In 2016 and 2017, the mayor and council moved to continue funding for families receiving TANF for beyond 60 months. But current law mandates a new 60-month limit go into effect by Oct 1.

Tatyana Hopkins has always wanted to make the world a better place. Growing up she knew she wanted to be a journalist. To her there were too many issues in the world to pick a career that would force her...

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