Councilmember Brianne Nadeau Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It’s an early July day in a government building in Anacostia, and dozens of women are cutting images out of magazines to make “vision boards.” Among them is Taquisha Branch, a single mother of two boys—one four years old, the other five months.

Since coming to D.C. 10 years ago, Branch has struggled with homelessness and spent time in a shelter. “Life since then has been kind of rough,” she says. “I find myself up and down. One minute I can be doing fine, and then the next minute it feels like I’m not doing so good.”

Today is a good one. Branch is at a training for a job placement program known as LEAP (Learn Earn Advance Proposer) for people who receive cash through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It gives these women a shot at a District-funded internship with the city or a private company, which in turn offers them a chance to earn a permanent position.

The program prioritizes applicants who use rapid rehousing vouchers to pay their rent, who are employed but still require TANF money to make ends meet, or who have been on TANF for more than five years. That last point is key, as the District is debating how much money—if any—these low-income families should get once they hit the 60-month mark.

As of December 2015, 15,889 D.C. residents were receiving monthly cash payments through TANF. Just over 6,200 of those recipients, with about 13,000 children between them, had been doing so for more than five years.

In 2011, the District instituted a time limit, which reduced the benefits those families receive, and proposed to cut them off entirely after a few years. That deadline has been pushed several times, most recently during this spring’s budget negotiations. An October 2017 deadline now looms.

Currently, a family of three that has been on TANF for more than five years receives a maximum of $154 a month—cash they need to pay bills or buy school uniforms. The average TANF family is headed by a single woman in her early 20s who has two children under the age of 10. 

It’s these young children, advocates say, who will be hurt by a complete loss of TANF once their parents have reached the aid ceiling. 

“The research is just so very, very clear,” says Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “We know their lives will be worse. That’s not just bad for them, it’s bad for the whole community.”

The District also requires most TANF recipients to participate in job training or placement programs. More than 11,400 were eligible for these programs, run by outside nonprofits and private vendors, as of the end of last year. But in fiscal year 2015, 56 percent of people assigned to one did not complete their required hours.

The barriers to compliance are numerous and complex (child care, mental health needs, problems with a vendor, etc.) And even those who find a job may not be in it for long: A D.C. Auditor analysis found that, of the more than 6,000 TANF recipients placed in jobs between February 2012 and October 2014, just 770 were still in those positions after six months. Low wages and part-time hours are also an issue: The companies that employ the most TANF recipients, the auditor found, are AlliedBarton Security Services, McDonald’s, Walmart, and grocery stores.

The D.C. Department of Human Services is in the midst of a TANF revamp. Just last year, some recipients had to wait several months or even a year to be connected to an employment vendor. That wait time is now effectively eliminated as DHS continues to increase the number of people these vendors can serve.

Some of those additional slots are in LEAP. Unlike work readiness and job placement programs to which aid recipients are assigned, LEAP involves an application process and is only open to candidates with a high school diploma and basic computer skills. Originally, applicants had to write a short essay on a question that contains some of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s most treasured and enduring jargon: “How will participating in L.E.A.P. help me reach a pathway to the middle class?” 

The program began in March 2015, and three groups have completed the training process, in which participants learn interview skills, hear about workplace expectations, network, and receive childcare and transportation help. It includes “anything that can prevent or be a challenge to being successful,” says Tamitha Christian of the Office of Work Opportunity at DHS. The goal is to address problems before they’re hired. If problems do arise, DHS serves as a quasi HR department, Christian says. “We’re screening customers, making sure they’re good matches, and we’re providing [employers] with supports.” 

To begin, the program offered those who completed training the chance to interview for a 12-month paid internship with a D.C. government agency. Of 51 participants, 20 were hired into permanent positions and four had their internships extended.

A fourth group is currently preparing to interview for one of 30 paid internships, this time with private employers recruited by D.C.’s Department of Employment Services for up to six months. Among them are 10 security positions with AlliedBarton and 10 health care navigator positions with the D.C. Primary Care Association.

Branch’s interest was piqued by the latter because she’s a certified medical assistant and phlebotomist who once worked at a pediatric medical office in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Branch, who’s received TANF money for three years, says she has looked for work in the D.C. area only to hear “no, nothing’s available.”

“It gets overwhelming at times, because… I’m doing it all on my own,” she says. “I try to be resourceful, as much as possible. I try to go around and speak with a lot of people so I can get as much help as I need. I’m very independent. I rely on myself, so I say I’m reliable. I just always have looked at life like, you know, you have to have faith. Without faith, like, what’s possible?”

Despite struggling to find employment, she’s a year away from graduating with an associate degree in criminal justice from Trinity Washington University. Branch eventually wants to be a juvenile probation officer, but for now she’s grateful for LEAP.

“The job is not guaranteed, but I… always say I would like to thank Muriel Bowser for the opportunity, for the idea, for the program,” she says. “I plan to get the best out of it.”

Cynthia Russell, too, is a single mother of two children who has been applying for jobs and interviewing for years without success. Russell has a bachelor’s in business management from Southeastern University, and she was getting her master’s degree in 2008 when she became pregnant with her first child, despite being told she would never be able to conceive.

Russell left school, then lost her job as a management analyst in 2012. “I didn’t need assistance for a while,” she says, adding that she had saved well and lived off that money for a time. “It’s been hard.”

But Russell is quick to list all of the job training opportunities the District has offered her. In addition to training with LEAP—“they go over so much”—she’s also earning a computer certification.

“I can’t see not being able to move along and get employment with all these resources,” she says. With LEAP, “you have one foot in the door. … You get a chance.”

The upside is clear: Unlike a job at Ross Dress for Less or Safeway, these professional jobs pay higher salaries and offer clearer paths to financial independence. Hundreds of people have applied, Christian says, for around two dozen slots in each group. But it’s unlikely the District will expand LEAP in the near future, for one major reason: “This is a very expensive program,” Christian says. 

DOES pays the internship salaries. For this fourth group, the agency will do that for up to six months. At $13.85 an hour, 40 hours a week, that’s an estimated $13,296 per person. (A department spokeswoman notes that private employers say two to three months is usually enough time to make a decision about an intern.) Just 50 internships are budgeted for fiscal year 2017, but that may change if the agency is able to attract more private businesses, Christian says. 

It’s an idea that’s already driving Russell: “Maybe down the line, more employers will come in when they’ve seen how well we’ve done.”

As DHS continues to reform TANF, the Council is expected to consider legislation this fall that would codify reasons why recipients who have reached the 60-month ceiling should have their benefits extended: homelessness; children in foster care; being a teenage parent; or caring for a person with a mental or physical disability. There are broader reasons, too, like “a lack of employment opportunities within the District,” or “significant barriers to employment.”

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who introduced the bill in December, says “five years is not going to be enough” for TANF participants “starting from scratch”—those who require basic literacy or numeracy courses.

“Many of our unemployed residents have not been given education that’s going to position them for the jobs that are available,” she says. Her bill “seeks to humanize the people who receive these benefits.”

The mayor has promised to form a task force on the bill to get input from government officials, advocates, and TANF recipients. It’s expected to be convened next month.

Extending benefits to these 60-month families has an “upfront cost,” Sandalow says, but “over time, quite quickly, this will be a cost saving for the city.” With their monthly benefits already so low, many of these families are doubled up in housing, advocates believe. A wholesale cut to benefits could mean families winding up in shelters, which would cost the District significantly more money.

“People have a lot of stereotypes in their head,” Sandalow says. But many of these women are cycling in and out of TANF as they struggle to find jobs that can accommodate being a working, single mom climbing out of poverty.

“It’s hard for folks to understand what that economy looks like.”