“You made a good case, and we listened.”

(Mayor Gray to advocates on August 20th, announcing the Gray Administration’s decision to delay the next round of reductions in TANF benefits for six months)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a lifeline for low-income families whose parents are caring for young children or children with disabilities, struggling with unemployment, or fleeing abusive relationships. This federally-funded program has been a subject of great debate ever since the “welfare reform” efforts of the mid-1990’s transformed this public assistance program for families from an “entitlement” to a time-limited benefit requiring certain work-related activities for continued eligibility, and sanctions for failing to meet those requirements.

While a relatively meager sum ($428/month for a family of three), this monthly payment can mean the difference between homelessness and living on the street, for example when a parent uses the funds to contribute towards a relative’s household expenses in exchange for the family being able to sleep on their floor. The TANF grant can also help families with housing subsidies pay for necessities that can’t be purchased with food stamps, such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies and personal care items. And it can help to cover the cost of child care while a parent is out pounding the pavement looking for work. TANF funds can be used by a parent to pay for transportation to employment training programs and job interviews, as well as for bus fare to accompany children to school, or to attend school herself.

The District of Columbia is now on a course to incrementally reduce TANF benefits for families who’ve been on TANF for 60 months during their lifetimes. This isn’t hard to do if you’re raising two children for 20 years and face periodic bouts with unemployment. Already the local government has effected a 20% reduction in benefit levels for the 60-month families. When he introduced the FY 2013 budget in the spring, Mayor Gray proposed that a second reduction be implemented beginning October 1st. In response, the DC Council ultimately approved a budget that would postpone the cuts by a year, but only if new revenues were forecast. With the prospect of such new revenue growing bleak, the community turned up the volume of our advocacy, continuing to push the Gray Administration to back off of the reductions; it’s only fair, we argued, given that the local government failed to uphold its part of the TANF reform bargain, i.e. enhancing employment training and supports—reform long sought by advocates.

Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor BB Otero, and DHS Director Dave Berns convened a group of advocates about ten days ago to announce that the Administration had listened to the community and would postpone the second round of reductions for six months. At the same time, DHS would shore up its efforts to assess families who were at, or close to, the 60-month limit and link those families with the resources needed to overcome employment barriers.

We commend the Mayor for his change of heart—which brings him at least somewhat more closely in line with the public and the Council on the issue of balancing the budget on the backs of the District’s most vulnerable residents. We do need to keep the pressure on though. So far, the administration has refused to enact much needed hardship exemptions to the time limit cuts, exemptions that many other jurisdictions have had in place for years. Without them families caring long-term for a child with disabilities won’t be exempt from the time limit cuts. Or families nearing the time limit who become permanently disabled and unable to work will lose their benefits, even while they wait the 18-24 months for federal disability benefits to kick in.

For families like Ms. Jones’s, Ms. S’s, Ms. K’s and so many others, every TANF dollar is a precious resource needed to support the journey out of poverty and homelessness. Thank you Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Otero and Director Berns for assuring this journey stays on course…at least for now.