Will DC Learn Before It’s Too Late? Welfare Time Limits Hurt Children

The Numbers

It looks like DC may consider scrapping a welfare time limit that threatened to leave thousands of families with children without cash resources to pay for rent, school uniforms, transportation, and other basic needs. 

A Working Group convened by Mayor Bowser concluded that the District needs a stronger safety net for children. Twenty years of federal welfare reform – known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF – has shown that that strict time limits often fall on families with serious challenges; that most do not find sustainable employment; and that children often fall into extreme poverty as a result. Here in DC, many families on TANF have disabilities or health problems, while many others use welfare as a safety net as they cycle in and out of low-wage part-time jobs in industries marked by high turnover. When they leave TANF they often do not leave poverty.

That’s why the mayor’s Working Group called for a policy to guarantee some level of assistance, with no time limit, to ensure families have resources to meet the needs of their children. It also recommended that a portion of the grant – the parent’s portion – could be cut when parents are not taking steps to prepare for work.

This is not only humane, but smart public policy. Most TANF recipients in DC get no housing assistance and use TANF to pay rent (or help pay rent in someone else’s home). Without this, many would be pushed closer to homelessness. Moreover, having a stable family income is critical to creating a healthy environment for children. Boosting a low-income family’s income leads to better performance at school, which in turn encourages higher graduation rates and better employment as an adult.

The Working Group has made its recommendation. Mayor Bowser and the DC Council now need to turn it into law and provide the funding.

What We Know about Welfare Reform in DC and the Nation

The Working Group was convened because the District’s current TANF time limit, established in 2010 and 2011, is set to cut 10,000 children from assistance in October 2017, regardless of their family’s circumstances, with no chance to get back on. This is one of the strictest time limits in the nation. The federal law that governs TANF was passed in 1996 and grants states a great deal of flexibility over time limits. Most give more time to families who need it.

The Working Group – made up of policymakers, employment services providers, TANF recipients, and advocates – reviewed the 20-year history of time limits, particularly the hardships faced by families in states with harsh time limits. They found that:

  • Most parents do not secure steady employment. A Maryland study found that families who leave TANF because of time limits work less in the year after than other TANF leavers do. In the state of Washington only 45 percent were working three years after their case closed due to a time limit. The District has recovered from the recession, but wage and job growth have been uneven. A survey of DC TANF recipients found that most earn less than $12.50 an hour, and less than $250 a week, when they find a job. And they may be the lucky ones. About 18 percent of residents with a high school diploma are unemployed, compared with 10 percent in 2007 before start of the recession.
  • Many experience housing instability or homelessness.A Maine study found that one in five families cut off by time limits reports being evicted, having to relocate to overcrowded living conditions, or going to a homeless shelter. Washington state found that 20 percent of families who left due to time limits were homeless after three years. This could happen in DC. Most families on TANF do not receive housing subsidies. Most are “doubled up,” staying with family or friends who are likely to be doing only slightly better economically than they are. The loss of benefits would likely mean that the TANF family would have no income to contribute to the joint household, while still adding to the household’s expenses. The host family might no longer be able to host the TANF family, putting them at risk for becoming homeless.
  • Parents struggle to keep families together.When parents lose TANF without a secure job, their children are more likely to be abused or neglected and end up in foster care.
  • Child development is threatened.When TANF benefits are cut off from mothers of preschoolers, children are three times more likely to have serious behavior problems than other young children. Children are also more likely to repeat a grade and less likely to be engaged by their parents in important learning activities like reading when they are subject to strict TANF time limits. The challenges poor parents face in creating a positive environment can lead to toxic levels of stress and adversely affect both physical and cognitive development, including brain development in young children. Low-income children enter school well behind other children and then perform more poorly. They complete fewer years of education, and then work less and earn less as adults.

Reforming Time Limits by Eliminating Them

That may sound depressing and hopeless. But it actually isn’t. Research also shows that increasing a family’s income, even by a small amount, can make a big difference on a range of outcomes for poor children, including test scores, school attendance, high school graduation, college enrollment, and future employment.

The Working Group’s recommendation will do just that while also including provisions to ensure that parents are engaging in services that will improve the family’s economic situation. The Working Group also made concrete suggestions for improving the services provided so that parents are more likely to move into employment. This will create a brighter future for them and for the District as a whole.

Kate Coventry is a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org) and a voting member of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness, representing DC government, nonprofit providers, advocates, and homeless and formerly homeless residents. Its mission is to guide the city’s homelessness efforts.The Fiscal Policy Institutepromotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia and to increase the opportunity for residents to build a better future. 


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