Officials at the District's Department of Human Services want the D.C. Council to give them six more months to implement "an aggressive yet deliberate strategy" to determine which of the 6,000 District families that have been receiving welfare payments for more than five years still need financial help. But that review should have been conducted four years ago.
When Congress replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 1996, it clearly intended the new federal welfare-to-work block grant program as a short-term safety net for families down on their luck. It was a major success. By 2003, 2.9 million fewer children were living in poverty. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute points out that the District's own welfare rolls decreased by roughly 50 percent -- from about 70,000 adults and children in 1996 to 40,000 in 2011.
But some would turn back the clock. In July, a new Obama administration policy directive encouraged states to experiment, through "demonstration projects," with policies that water down or substitute for TANF's work requirements. D.C. itself has already skirted the federal law's five-year cap on benefits by substituting city funds instead.
In 2010, Councilman Marion Barry, D-Ward 8, made headlines when he said: "Let's face it, both locally and nationally, [TANF] has failed to alleviate long-term poverty, allowing individuals to continue on this cycle of reliance and dependency." Barry added that D.C. was also failing to prepare welfare recipients for work.
So for 6,000 of the 17,500 families currently on TANF, welfare payments have become a permanent crutch, dooming long-term recipients to the same grinding poverty that welfare is supposed to prevent. Last year, TANF benefits were reduced 20 percent for those on welfare more than five years; they face an additional 25 percent cut on Oct. 1 unless council members agree to a six-month delay. Long-term benefits are scheduled to phase out completely in 2014.
What then? D.C. spends $168 million on welfare -- including federal block grants and city funds. Of that amount, $70.4 million goes for cash assistance. Only $18.6 million is spent on the TANF employment program -- even though preparing able-bodied recipients to work is the program's main goal. Barry has been highly critical of the Department of Human Services for this same reason. Before it's granted any deadline extensions, the DHS should explain why this is.