Protecting TANF as a lifeline

by Ed Lazere
DC Fiscal Policy Institute

This spring, D.C.’s leaders will face what I believe is the single most important social policy issue in my 15 years at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute: how to modify the city’s rigid Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) time limit. Under current law, the time limit will cut 13,000 children off from assistance this fall, regardless of their family’s circumstances. Yet cutting families off who are not ready will simply push children deeper into poverty and distress, worsening D.C.’s homelessness crisis, reducing children’s success in school, and increasing the chance that children will end up in foster care.

By contrast, a TANF program focused on protecting children, with a time limit that recognizes that some families need more time, can help put D.C.’s poorest families on a path to success. That’s why the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a number of organizations support legislation introduced last December to extend assistance to families under certain conditions, and to follow the lead of many states that never cut children off from aid.

D.C.’s TANF program ensures that our children can have their most basic needs met despite the economic hardships their parents face. Protecting families is not only the right thing to do; it also helps children go to school ready to learn and improves their chances of future success.

Now, this lifeline for D.C.’s children is at risk. Under current law, D.C. is poised to drop 6,500 families who have reached the 60-month time limit from TANF – including more than 13,000 children – this October. We know that even with the best TANF services, some families face barriers, like domestic violence or a disability, that get in the way of finding or holding a job. Equally important, D.C.’s economy is not working well for low-income residents. Wages have fallen for residents with less than a college degree, and unemployment remains high years after the Great Recession. The income of the poorest D.C. families has fallen to just $9,300 – a $1,500 drop over the last decade.

The reality is, if families are kicked out of TANF without being ready, they will end up straining other costly programs.

• Half of the families trying to move out of homelessness through rapid rehousing are TANF recipients at the 60-month point.

• When TANF benefits are cut off from mothers of preschoolers, their children are three times more likely to have serious behavior problems than other young children.

• When parents are cut off of TANF without a secure job, their children are more likely to be abused or neglected and end up in foster care.

This is our chance to strengthen TANF so D.C. families and children facing the greatest odds have the support they need to get on a path to greater independence.

Organizations that want to sign on to support legislation to extend assistance to families under certain conditions, or who want to learn more about the legislation, should visit

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