Sunday’s Washington Post reports that the District of Columbia is considering changing its welfare program to restore real work requirements for able-bodied individuals receiving cash assistance. The change is expected to save $6.2 million in the District’s budget. This is a wise move and one that other states and counties should consider making, in light of the budget shortfalls many of them face.
According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, 16,000 households in the District receive cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Despite the federal work requirement that 50 percent of the caseload be engaged in some kind of work or work-related activity for 20-30 hours a week, only 500-600 of the District recipients are participating in work or job-search activities that meet the minimum standard. More than 6,000 families that receive benefits are not engaged in any kind of work or job-search activity at all. The Washington Post reports that about 3,000 TANF recipients in the District have been on the caseload for more than five years.
Not only does it cost District taxpayers more money when work requirements are not enforced, but it delays the opportunity for families to move out of dependence on the government and into self sufficiency. Living in poverty and on welfare is an unacceptable standard for any person, let alone any child. By recalibrating the District’s welfare program to enforce real work requirements for able-bodied individuals, Mayor Fenty gives new hope and real opportunity to thousands of families that have languished within the system for years. Moreover, the TANF law allows states (and the District) to keep the fiscal savings from moving people off of the rolls. Those savings could be used elsewhere in the state budget for need-based programs.
Nationwide, caseloads have shrunk by more than half since the monumental 1996 welfare reform law was enacted. States that actively enforced work requirements and created serious programs to educate, train, and place their recipients in jobs saw real results. Caseloads fell and child poverty rates declined dramatically; millions of former recipients were lifted from government dependency to the dignity of working and contributing to their own support.
Citizens of the District of Columbia should be heartened by this new change to the city’s welfare program and its goal of moving at least 1,000 of its TANF recipients into some kind of work or work-related activity. An even bolder move would be for the mayor to increase this goal to at least half of the 16,000 families that are currently on the rolls. Yet even the stated goal is a step in the right direction. Perhaps, once the District sees the savings from these changes as fewer families are dependent on the government, higher goals can be set and reached.