Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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A cash assistance program that helps keep low-income families afloat as the District becomes increasingly pricey could expand in the coming months.

Ahead of a D.C. Council hearing Thursday, the city’s Department of Human Services has compiled a report on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, created in 1996. In D.C., beneficiaries who have been enrolled in the program for less than five years now receive about $395 a month to help pay bills or take care of their children. What some experts call a “cliff” then kicks in, lowering the average payout to $150 a month.

There are income requirements for TANF benefits, and most recipients must participate in workforce programs or face reductions in benefits. At the end of last year, more than 15,000 residents were enrolled in the program. The benefits are designed to taper off as a given resident’s income rises. 

The District government has twice enacted temporary eligibility extensions for TANF benefits since 2011, when the D.C. Council approved a 60-month lifetime limit on them. Under current law, that restriction would come into effect Oct. 1, 2017. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that such a lapse would cut off more than 10,000 low-income children—most under the age of 10—from cash assistance, thereby putting their well-being at risk.

But the council is considering legislation that would allow certain residents to keep receiving TANF benefits beyond the 60-month time limit. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced it in December (five of her colleagues co-sponsored it). The bill outlines conditions for time that wouldn’t count toward the TANF limit, including homelessness and when a resident encounters “significant barriers to employment” like physical impairments.

This week’s report, commissioned by DHS and produced by a working group of TANF recipients, advocates, service providers, and District officials, will “help frame the conversation” around TANF reform, explains DHS Director Laura Zeilinger. “It was important to build consensus as a community” based on data, she says. “This tells us the experience of residents of the District in the program up until now, and what our values are in terms of how we think about the role of TANF.”

The working group’s main recommendation is to create two separate TANF grants in accordance with federal requirements stipulating that D.C. has sanctions procedures in administering the benefits. Essentially, the approach would create a “two-generational policy” to ensure needy children are not penalized for a head of household’s failure to comply with TANF requirements while also maintaining incentives for that person to engage in work.

Under the proposal, a child portion of the grant would comprise 80 percent of the full TANF benefit, with the same eligibility conditions in place minus work requirements and a time limit. A parent portion of the grant would comprise the remaining 20 percent of the TANF benefit. It would also remove a time limit on payout, plus reduce the percentage penalties for noncompliance with the program. (There are three tiers of sanctions for TANF violations on the books, but only the most minor has been enforced.) Members of the working group disagreed about the 80-20 breakdown, so it could change.

Less-favored recommendations in the report detail scenarios in which TANF benefits would be extended as-is after 60 months for families who comply with program requirements, and child-only grants valued at 80 percent of benefits after 60 months. The report notes that its recommendations come with costs, so policymakers would have to weigh potential expenses during the budgeting process.

“Ultimately, we will need to propose something in the context of a balanced budget,” Zeilinger says. “The hearing that will happen [Thursday] will provide additional opportunity to hear people outside of the working group on how we get to the best place possible.” 

The full report can be read here.