DC’s TANF program is currently undergoing a long overdue redesign. As part of the redesign, each parent will complete an assessment to identify her or his potential barriers to work, any health issues of family members that impact work, talents and job qualifications, educational background, and the overall needs of the family. Once a parent has been assessed, they will then receive services crafted to fit her or his individual needs and skills, the goal of which is to move towards self-sufficiency and a living wage job. This new, individualized approach holds great promise as we move away from the “one size fits all” system of the past.

Countless studies show us that the families who remain on TANF beyond 60 months have multiple and severe barriers to employment: recurrent domestic violence, low literacy, physical and mental health disabilities, caring for a disabled family member, and lack of affordable child care – to name a few. The redesign is essential to ensure that families get the specific support they need to address these challenges and make the transition back to work.

However, the redesign and in particular the assessments are taking longer than anticipated. Only a fraction of the entire TANF population has been assessed and the Department of Human Services (DHS) acknowledges that the agency will not be able to assess every family before planned cuts to TANF benefits go into effect this coming October. Of those who are lucky enough to have been assessed, only a handful have been referred to newly designed services that will help them remove barriers to employment.

What this means for families who have been on TANF for 60 months or more is that their benefits will be reduced by a whopping 40% before they’ve been connected to services that would help them move to work. For years, the TANF system in DC has been behind the curve in terms of providing support services to assist families, and the redesign promises to remedy this shortcoming. It would be foolish to sanction families now for reaching the lifetime limit of 60 months without first allowing them time to benefit from the redesign.

Speaking of lifetime limits, here’s another area where DC is currently missing the mark. In 48 other jurisdictions, the months that a family receives TANF because health issues prevent the parent from working do not count towards that family’s lifetime limit on TANF. In DC, they do. In 43 other jurisdictions, the months a family receives TANF because the parent stays home to care for a disabled child don’t count.  Once again, in DC they do.  In 43 other jurisdictions, the months a parent can’t work because she’s experiencing or fleeing domestic abuse do not count towards that family’s lifetime limit.  In DC, they do. District families facing such challenges will see their benefits cuts severely on October 1, 2013 despite having very good reasons for needing further support.

Reducing benefits this fall to families who face the greatest barriers to employment will only force those families to rely more heavily on already overburdened emergency services like shelter, food programs, and other emergency assistance – shifting the costs from TANF to other government agencies.

Barring intervention by the DC Council, these cuts will significantly harm the most vulnerable DC families and will severely undermine the very noble goals of the TANF redesign: to assist families in moving successfully out of poverty and reduce their dependence on safety net programs.

Stay tuned for more information on how you can help oppose these cuts.