The DC Council Committee on Human Services is holding a hearing today on Bill 20-414, the “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Cost-of-Living Adjustment Amendment Act of 2013.” Legal Clinic staff attorney Becky O’Brien submitted the following testimony to the Committee.

I want to thank you for introducing Bill 20-414, “TANF Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) Amendment Act of 2013” which proposes an increase to TANF benefits for District families.

Due in large part to the District’s current low TANF benefit levels, parents live in a state of constant crisis. Nearly all of the TANF families with whom I’ve spoken run out of TANF benefits before the end of each month. No family in DC who survives on TANF can afford private housing and very few have the benefit of housing through subsidized programs. As a result, these families are homeless or at immediate risk of homelessness. They are living on a friend’s couch, living in shelter, moving from place to place, or staying in unsafe conditions. Every parent I speak with talks about the final weeks of every month when TANF benefits are gone and SNAP/food stamps benefits exhausted. Parents are forced to spend their time seeking emergency help to pay the bills, going to food pantries for a bag of groceries, missing meals, and doing anything they can to ensure that they provide for the basic needs of their families. Simply put, families cannot survive month to month on TANF benefits.

As a community, we have some basic expectations of the TANF program: provide financial assistance to families with no income so basic needs are covered and assist parents in moving toward work. But when our TANF parents are forced to spend part of every month searching out ways to meet the very basic needs of their families, they cannot focus on the goal of moving toward work. It is nearly impossible to focus on seeking or keeping a job when you do not know where you will get your next meal, when you live in constant fear of losing your utilities, when you are in jeopardy of losing your housing, or when you stay with an abuser because you do not have the resources to leave.

Over the past few years, the DC Department of Human Services (DHS) has poured time, energy, and money into improving its TANF program. DHS has focused on improving the individual assessment so barriers to work can be removed, and in improving employment services so parents can get and keep good jobs. Increasing TANF benefit levels is an essential part of these enhancements and improvements to the program.

Recently, advocates met with TANF work vendors to discuss the most prevalent problems families face. Those conversations confirmed that vendors regularly spend time identifying resources to help stabilize families in their program. Some programs keep food at their offices to offer clients whose benefits have run out. Others help parents identify organizations that provide free groceries, while still others advocate on behalf of families to get them into shelter when they lose their housing. I applaud their willingness to do all they can to support the families in their programs, but this is time that should be spent on assisting those parents in finding good jobs. The fact that vendors need to help parents access these basic resources is a sign that families cannot survive on the current TANF benefit level.

Sadly, our parents have not seen an increase to their TANF benefits in years. Current benefit amounts are far too low to cover the basic costs of living in the District even when supplemented by other benefits. We fall far behind comparable jurisdictions for TANF benefit levels. A family of three currently receives $428 in DC while that same family receives $576 in Maryland, $638 in Boston and $753 in New York City.

We support the proposed –and long overdue – increase to TANF benefits as an effort to stabilize DC families in crisis. The increase will not eliminate this crisis but it will begin to ease it, allowing parents to focus on their efforts to secure a good job and hopefully move off the TANF program altogether.