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Press Statement of Council Member Marion Barry
Breaking the Cycle of Generational Poverty: Necessary Reforms to the District’s TANF Program
Good afternoon, welcome everyone and thank you for joining me here today. I am here to discuss a very important issue affecting the majority of families living in the District. My goal here today is to start a public dialogue and action on breaking the cycle of generational poverty, generational joblessness, and generational government assistance. I want to thank Council Member Tommy Wells and his staff for working, cooperatively with me and my staff to schedule hearings on this issue for Monday, November 15 th. Recently, President Obama, in his address to the United Nations and the General Assembly, stated that, “What is needed most right now is creating conditions where assistance is no longer needed. Let’s move beyond the old narrow debate over how much money we are spending on the anti-poverty program. Let’s instead focus on results and whether they are actually making improvements in people’s lives.” What the President stated is exactly what we need to do here in the District. Currently, the District has over 17,505 families in the District’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF program. As you may know, TANF is a federally-funded program which gives funding to states through a “block grant”. Each year, participating states receive a fixed amount of funding from the federal government. Federal regulations impose a life-time limit of 60 months on the receipt of the federal assistance. It is then within the State’s discretion to use local funds to further the benefits to recipients beyond the 60-month time limit. Currently, the District extends this 5-year time limit to over 7,000 families. There are an additional 2,500 families that have been in the program over 8 years. Together, these families represent more than half of the entire caseload.
Federal regulations also allow for an extension of the 60-month time limit to 20% of a state’s entire caseload. The District has exceeded this limit by 30% and we are one of only a few jurisdictions to do so, without time limits. Yet, this important issue is not about dollars, percentages, caseload numbers, or time-limits. This issue presents a bigger problem that affects everyone in this city. My goal here, today, and with my introduction of legislation, B18-1061, the “District of Columbia Public Assistance Amendment Act of 2010”, is to address "Breaking the Cycle". Our public education system is failing our children who become adults; they do not have the proper skills to obtain gainful employment. This further perpetuates a cycle of generational poverty that leaves families in the “system” for decades, generation after generation. The TANF program is only one factor in breaking the cycle. Although the original intention and purpose of the federal TANF program was to assist families with children during a time of unemployment or under-employment, and ultimately prepare them to re-enter the workforce; the current TANF program, let’s face it, both locally and nationally, has failed to alleviate long-term poverty, allowing individuals to continue on this cycle of reliance and dependency. In 2008, the Council urged the current Mayor to make some significant changes within our TANF program. The Committee on Human Services, Chaired by Councilmember Tommy Wells, held several hearings and meetings with the advocates and the administration on this issue. The result of these discussions uncovered the fact that out of 17,800 families currently in the program; only 500 families were in compliance with the program. That means there are thousands of families in the programs who are not complying, and the government does not have a system currently in place to determine why they aren’t. Why aren’t the families complying? What are the barriers that prevent them from complying with the program? Why do we not know the answers to these questions? Last week, I met with over a dozen poverty advocates here in the District, the Director of the District’s Department of Human Services, Clarence Carter, and Councilmember Wells’ staff hoping to get some answers to these questions. We had more than an hour long discussion on the current issues within our TANF program. For example, some advocates expressed their concerns about the current barriers that TANF recipients face such as, the need for better individualized assessments; connection to better services; access to better education and training; and, better referrals to legal organizations for representation regarding Supplemental Security Income proceedings. I continued to ask, “Why are the families in the local program not meeting the basic federal requirements?”
Some answered that there are recipients, actually enrolled in education programs that are not counted towards the federal guidelines; others indicated that recipients do not meet the requirements, due to the need for additional services such as, counseling, substance abuse treatment or, a disability. These are issues that the government needs to be aware of in order to provide the appropriate and necessary services to recipients, while preparing them to re-enter the workforce. If we cannot effectively identify individual barriers, how can we expect recipients to comply with the program? Director Carter has stated that DHS is currently in the process of redesigning the system and beginning an individual analysis and assessment program in order to work toward the goal of growing human capacity, versus merely providing a benefit. DHS is calling this program redesign, “The TANF Universal Delivery Model”. This new service delivery model offers TANF customers a suite of services to better match their goals, unique needs, and personal and family circumstances. The model allows the program to understand the situation of the TANF recipients and meet them where they are. My question is this, since Mr. Carter has been the Director for over 3 years, why has it taken all this time to redesign the system? Therefore, I am looking forward to Director Carter’s testimony at the public hearing on Monday. Specifically, I will be listening for a complete description of the program, as it exists currently, and his proposed major changes with coinciding timelines and projections. The government needs to change our system, rapidly, and every agency should be expected to participate in the solution because the TANF program has failed in its mission. What I want to make very clear today, and in any discussion going forward, is that the focus of this issue is not about completely removing families from the program or reducing benefits without having a real discussion on how we can better improve our program. I am well aware of the fact that time limits do not create work participation. This bill is a work in progress, and like most of the bills introduced at the Council, it will not be presented to the full Council in its draft form. Myself, along with the members of the Committee, upon hearing the testimony on Monday, will work hard to craft the bill in a manner that will require the District to develop a plan for those currently in the local program who are nearing or, at the 60-month time limit. Again, the goal is to identify ways of making our current program more effective and better serving of the recipients. This goal promotes principles of self sufficiency, personal responsibility, and opportunity for upward mobility, for people who are stuck in this cycle of poverty. It is fair to say that a significant number of families currently in the TANF program do not want to be dependent on the system. The average monthly benefit for most families in the program is $374 month which is hardly enough to support their children and provide basic needs for their families. There is nothing more boastful to a citizen's sense of purpose and self-sufficiency
than being able to obtain gainful employment and being able to provide for their children that which they did not have, in order to offer them a better life. One can hardly do that in this City, in 2010, on $374 a month. I have spent over 35 years in public service advocating for the rights of individuals who have been under-served, over-looked, and underappreciated. We have reached a point in the TANF system where it is no longer fulfilling its purpose - to successfully place recipients back into the workforce and we need to identify what we are doing wrong, and best practices across this country. This is just one of several open dialogues I plan to continue to have with advocates, the community, and government officials as we work to improve this system, and ultimately "Break the Cycle". Thank you, I will now take questions.