Improving TANF for Disabled Residents: Good Policy and Good for the Budget

We’ve been talking about the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program a lot these days. One thing politicians, advocates, and many recipients themselves agree on is that the TANF program needs improvement. At a hearing on the program last fall, even the director of the Department of Human Services (which administers the District’s TANF program) admitted that they needed to do a much better job.

This is especially true for TANF recipients with disabilities. For starters, the District doesn’t even know how many there are. It’s likely a lot: back in 2003, the Urban Institute reported that 16% of heads of households on TANF in the District had a physical health problem, 20.9% had a mental health problem, and 8.6% had a possible learning disability. Some TANF recipients with disabilities are currently able to work, and with proper training and support, many more could find and keep employment. But in Fiscal Year 2008, only 3% of DC TANF recipients were enrolled in POWER, which provides employment training and support for people with disabilities.

Starting later this year, the Income Maintenance Administration is planning a major revamp of the TANF program’s assessment and training programs; some of their ideas are mirrored in a bill introduced by Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Michael Brown that passed recently. We hope the District will soon do a better job of assessing TANF recipients and helping as many as possible, even those with disabilities, to enter the workforce.

But what about TANF recipients who have disabilities that make them unable to work?

That’s where a program like Interim Disability Assistance could step in to help TANF recipients—and help the District’s budget. IDA gives applicants for Social Security disability benefits a small amount of money (exactly the same amount as TANF, as a matter of fact) for the months or years their applications are pending, and also provides some information and referrals for help with the Social Security application process. When Social Security approves someone for benefits, they pay a lump-sum of all the benefits the person missed out on while they were awaiting a decision. When that person had received IDA, the District recovers the money it paid out.

IDA is a lifeline for single, childless, adults who otherwise would have no way to pay for bus tickets, toiletries, prescription co-pays, and other crucial items. Unfortunately, it only covers adults without children.

Instead of IDA, low-income parents with disabilities receive TANF, and the information they get about Social Security benefits and help they get in applying for it are very limited. That’s unfortunate for them and the city alike, because Social Security pays significantly more than TANF, is fully federally-funded, and qualifies people for Medicare. And if TANF recipients do apply for and receive Social Security benefits, the District doesn’t recover a penny of it. The District should consider incorporating an IDA-like program into TANF, like Washington State and Oregon already do, and as the Social Security Administration has encouraged. It would be a good change for disabled TANF recipients, their families, and the District as a whole.

Community Brainstorm: Building a Healthy, Hunger-Free DC

Rooting DC, last Saturday’s urban gardening forum, offered workshops on everything from beekeeping and canning to green roofs and gardening with youth, as well as panels on the DC Healthy Schools Act, Making Community Gardens Flourish, and much more.
At the end of the day, the “Community Brainstorm: Building a Healthy, Hunger-Free DC” session provided interested attendees the opportunity to participate in a discussion about how to build a more just, nourishing food system in DC. As shown by the turnout at Rooting DC, countless nonprofits and individuals are involved in food politics in this city; this session offered space to think about collaborating and creating change.
photo credit Andrew Plotsky, www.farmrun.com
The food system impacts the environment, the economy, and people, yet there is no centralized agency responsible for it; in DC, at least 13 different city agencies play a role in shaping our local food system.
Carl Rollins of Common Good City Farm pointed out that if we want to change the local food system, we need to get involved—there are currently too few players deciding on the policies, and most of them are non-profit service providers, not necessarily DC residents who have the most at stake. With many groups and nonprofits focused primarily on emergency food distribution, we aren’t always thinking about how to improve the system itself.
Alicia Cameden of the Capital Area Food Bank then explained the concept of a food policy council, which has the potential to improve DC’s fragmented food system. Food policy councils in other cities and states engage with government policy, grassroots projects, businesses and food workers. They serve as forums for the discussion of food issues and coordination between the various sectors of the food system, and can influence government policies.

We broke into four groups to discuss what a healthier, more just food system in DC would look like, and to brainstorm city-wide, grassroots initiatives that could address some of the current problems. At the end, each group shared just a few of their favorite ideas, which included these:

  • Form a leadership council to encourage sharing of information
  • Better utilize volunteers by developing a centralized volunteer bank
  • Emphasize food sovereignty rather than food access; people should have a say in what food they eat
  • Appreciate traditional wisdom; learn from individuals who already grow their own food
  • Build communities around food; for example, happy hours, potlucks and block parties

Only an hour long, this Community Brainstorm was not intended to create answers but rather to gather interested individuals, begin ongoing conversations, and get ideas flowing. There will be many more chances to share ideas at future sessions, which will be hosted by these and other groups in the upcoming months. In addition, a survey is being created that will explore barriers to food access as well as some of the things that are working well in DC neighborhoods.

There are many ways to get involved, such as helping with the survey or attending or hosting an upcoming discussion. For more information, contact Allison Burket at aburket@breadforthecity.org.

The session was sponsored by the DC Food Justice Coalition, Bread for the City, SHIRE, DC Hunger Solutions, Common Good City Farm, Ecolocity, Groundwork Anacostia, Healthy Solutions, MWPHA Health Disparities Committee, ROC-DC, and others.

The disheartening loss of PreventionWorks!

TodayTomorrow, DC is losing an historic front-line stalwart in the fight against the AIDS epidemic: PreventionWorks! is closing.

PreventionWorks! is “the grandaddy of needle exchange” in DC. Their efforts began in the late 90s, well before it became clear how necessary this preventive strategy really is. In the face of a federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs in the District, which left most community health operations feeling hamstrung on the matter, PreventionWorks! grew larger and more determined. Bread for the City soon joined them in this work. We received needle exchange training from PreventionWorks!, and operated the program despite the federal funding ban. We funded the program with private dollars given by people like you, because needle exchange is quite simply one of the most effective tools in the effort to stop the spread of HIV.

“We did it because we don’t just stick our heads in the sand,” says our deputy director, Jeannine Sanford, about the decision. “Bread for the City does what’s going to save lives. We do what works.”

PreventionWorks! worked. Research has shown that cities with needle exchange programs see substantial decrease in infection rates, and PreventionWorks! worked hard to fill the gap in the District caused by congressional meddling. This is a true blow to the health of our entire city.

Bread for the City won’t be able to fully fill the gap left by PreventionWorks! — especially in far-flung areas of the District which were only reached by their mobile clinics, and where the need is greatest. But we do anticipate an increase in need at our service centers, and we are already preparing to meet it as best as we can.

So we’re asking for your help. Please give today to support our needle exchange program.

Especially in the face of renewed efforts in Congress to inhibit the District’s ability to provide services like these, we need to rally our support for a healthy community now more than ever.

Our sincere thanks and respect go out to the staff and volunteers at PreventionWorks!, and our encouragement goes out to their clients. Lastly, we too want to echo the sentiment expressed by the PreventionWorks! board of directors in their letter to the community:

“Above all, we acknowledge the courage and resilience of the PreventionWorks! clients themselves, who, despite the disease and stigma of drug use, have continued to persevere through their journeys of recovery in a society that has failed to provide adequate and effective resources for people struggling with addiction.”

Please stand with them and us in this time of need.

The Budget Countdown Begins

The city budget season is just around the corner. The release of the our newest Mayor’s proposed budget happens April 1st, and the advocacy community is gearing up for big cuts. There have been more than $120 million in reductions to safety net programs in the last three years. With another $400-600 million city revenue shortfall — the most yet — we’re anticipating whole programs on the chopping block.

Do you want to know how best to take action to save city services? Are you curious about the process? Come to one of the many budget trainings taking place at Bread for the City and around the city. These trainings are appropriate for staff of non-profits, curious citizens, volunteers, etc.

SOS Rally Signs

Here’s our roundup:

Fair Budget Coalition Breakfast Briefing on Tax and Revenue
9:30 – 11:00 am, Friday February 25th
Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Room 120
Our friends at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute will talk about how tax works and the importance of a balanced approach to the budget, including progressive revenue.

Fair Budget Coalition Meeting
9:00 – 11:00 am, Wednesday March 2nd
True Reformer Building, 1200 U St NW
Guests Eric Goulet (Budget Director for the Mayor) and Jennifer Budoff (Budget Director for the Council) will brief the coalition on the upcoming budget, followed by Q&A.

Bread Budget Training #1
5:30 – 7:30 pm, Monday March 7th
1640 Good Hope Rd SE
Kristi Matthews (Fair Budget Coalition) will lead this training geared toward Bread for the City clients and open to the public. We will talk about the budget process and tools for advocacy.

Bread Budget Training #2
11:30 – 1:30, Tuesday March 8th
1525 7th St NW
Susie Cambria (Consultant Extraordinaire) is leading this training geared toward Bread for the City staff and open to the public. We will learn about the budget process and the roles of various agencies, and discuss strategies for effective campaigns and advocacy.

What’s in Store for FY 2012?
9:30 – 11:30 am, Wednesday March 9th
Goethe Institute, 812 7th St NW
A forum on the latest information and perspectives on the D.C. budget outlook, including panelists Jennifer Budoff, Eric Goulet, Fitzroy Lee (Office of the Chief Financial Officer), Jenny Reed (DC Fiscal Policy Institute).

Bread Budget Training #3
5:30 – 7:30 pm, Monday March 14th
1525 7th St NW
Kristi Matthews will lead this training geared toward Bread for the City clients and open to the public. We will talk about the budget process and tools for advocacy.

Contact me at jpodschun(at)breadforthecity.org or 202-587-0524 to RSVP or learn more about any of these meetings.

The Bag Bill: One Year Later

Just over a year ago, D.C. became the first city in the country to successfully impose a “bag fee” – after several attempts in other cities (including liberal bastions like New York and Portland) failed in the face of lobbyist pressure. An insightful article in OnEarth magazine details the impressive campaign that went behind the bag bill victory, and Bread for the City is proud to have played a small role in the effort.

Our clients really do feel the pinch of an extra 5 cents at a register, so the burden of this legislation falls most heavily on them. But environmentalism isn’t just a pursuit of the privileged; our clients care about keeping their community clean as well. And together we are proving that conservation and fiscal prudence can go hand in hand.

In the year since the passage of the bag bill, Bread for the City has received tens of thousands of donated reusable bags to distribute through our pantry after the passage of the bill. The donations came by way of the DC government and several area grocery stores, including Safeway and Whole Foods, as well as private donations and community bag drives. And we are still collecting them! (Please contact Jeffrey Wankel at: jwankel@breadforthecity.org to organize a reusable bag drive in your community.)

In the meantime, it seems that the bag bill itself has been a success. Prior to the legislation, District grocery stores sent 22.5 million plastic bags out their doors every month. Now the number is closer to 3 million and expected to continue to decrease. Studies of the Anacostia and its tributary systems suggest that there are now 66% fewer plastic bags clogging up the river. (And plastic bags make up 20-45% of the total litter.)

Numbers like that sure do seem to indicate some big kind of shift in behavior and even consciousness. We think we can even sense a heightened awareness of conservation at work here at Bread for the City. I spent a few hours in the SE food pantry last week, talking with clients about the problems of non-biodegradable materials (it takes about 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose!). One woman told me that she’s noticed a clear change, and is proud to live “in a community that doesn’t have plastic trash flying at you in the wind.” Someone even asked us when the government is going to put a fee on bottles and cans.

Meanwhile, clients – especially our elders – definitely appreciate the reusable bag alternatives. We incentivize bag reuse by offering an additional item of produce from our pantry for each returned reusable bag, but one grandmother always comes back for new ones anyways. “My grandkids keep taking mine,” she told us.

In our view this speaks volumes to the way that public policy can foster an understanding between individual consumer actions and the greater well-being of our city. We encourage our neighbors in Maryland to follow suit with the similar legislation that has been put forth there. If some of the city’s most vulnerable people are not only “getting it” but eager to participate and even see the initiative expand, DC must be onto something!

In 2011, we hope to continue to provide reusable bags to our clients. Once again, to schedule an individual donation or plan a community bag drive, please contact Jeffrey Wankel at: jwankel@breadforthecity.org.

Introducing our new Food Pantry Director

I am pleased to announce that Melissa Frazier is Bread for the City’s new Food & Clothing Director.

This news makes me extremely proud of Melissa and our community. She is a true Bread for the City success story — demonstrating how much a person can accomplish with the right kind of support.

Melissa first came to us in 1997, a year after giving birth to her son, when she needed help making ends meet. She found that help in our food pantry. A year later, when she needed a physical for a job application, she turned to our health clinic for medical checkups that she wouldn’t have been able to afford elsewhere.

Melissa wanted to get more involved, and by 2002 she was volunteering at our front desk, and soon enough, she was hired as our Clothing Bank coordinator. It wasn’t long before she was promoted to Bread for the City’s facilities manager.

All along, Melissa trained under the watchful and supportive eye of Ted Pringle, our longtime Food & Clothing Program director. You may remember that Ted tragically passed from us last year. In the time since — most crucially during our Holiday Helpings season — Melissa served as an interim leader of the pantry. I’m thrilled to report that her leadership during this difficult time was steadfast and effective. As of the start of this year, she assumed the role of Food & Clothing Program Director.

“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Melissa told me about her new job, “but I am excited and honored to carry forth Ted’s legacy in this community.”

We are excited and honored to have her with us. And there is more exciting news to come out of our Food Program this month. So stay tuned!

City Divests from Supports for Low-Income Families and the Local Economy

The Income Maintenance Administration announced yesterday that TANF cash assistance will be cut by 20% for most households that have received TANF for at least five years. This benefit reduction, which impacts about half of the 16,000 households on TANF, was decided at the last moment as part of the budget shortfall decisions by the City Council in December. It goes into effect April 1.

The TANF program is the primary source of support for women who are raising children and struggling to get and keep good jobs. One in three children in DC is raised with a parent in the TANF program. Beyond Bread blogger Patty Anne wrote about the shortsightedness of removing supports for TANF recipients, and Save Our Safety Net added that the decision was made even as high-income households — those who have suffered the least in the recession — were not asked to invest in a strong safety net.

Families face many different situations — waiting for job training, dealing with a domestic violence situation, recovering from a health problem, looking for work, etc. Regardless of their different timelines, needs, and goals, families need enough cash assistance to stay stable. At an event last month, TANF recipient and Academy of Hope student Ernestine McSwain said, “It helps you to buy food and puts clothes on your children’s back.” Given all the expenses these families face, nearly every penny leads to even more local economic activity. This reduction will put assistance at $342 for families that have been in the program more than five years and do not meet one of three very narrow exemptions. (The benefit is currently set at $428 for a family of three.)

The notice from IMA about the reduction says, “We want to help you find a job so you can leave TANF. If you got a letter to go to a work program, you should go to the program.” Unfortunately, TANF is not set up to support women as they work toward their goals. Program administrators, TANF recipients, and advocates have pushed for better assessments to determine the appropriate mix of education, job training, and support services (like mental health treatment) for each recipient. There’s also an education and job training capacity issue. While additional funding for training was put in the budget voted on last fall, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that “even if every new adult training slot went to a long-term TANF recipient — which is not required under the current plan — only one of eight affected families could participate.”

Suggestions for how the District could better provide opportunity and stability to TANF recipients were identified by TANF recipients themselves in a 2009 report that I authored along with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. While the administration has been receptive to the changes we suggested, very little has been implemented. Why punish TANF recipients for the District’s shortcomings? Instead, our city should invest greater oversight and funding for these programs to ensure we can emerge from the recession with healthy families and a strong local workforce.

Protect Americorps!

There is a bill before congress this week that, if passed, would completely dismantle Americorps, the program that places full-time volunteers in non-profit and government agencies for one or two years while giving them a (very) modest stipend and a grant award to be spent on education. This would eliminate thousands of jobs and destroy a programs that encourage social innovation and social change around the country.

As we’ve written about here before, Bread for the City depends on several of our staff positions to be filled by full-time volunteers, most of whom are in Americorps programs. These positions are mutually beneficial–Bread for the City gets young, bright, enthusiastic, passionate employees at an extremely affordable rate, and young college graduates get exposure to a real working environment and, more importantly, their eyes are opened to the suffering caused by poverty that Bread for the City faces. Many of these full-time volunteers go on to work for justice throughout the rest of their careers.

If the H.R. 1 passes, Bread for the City will suffer, as would every other organization that has hosted an Americorps member, or those that have hired an Americorps alum and benefited from their experience. Sign this petition to let your representative know you value Americorps, or better yet, call your representative and tell them where you stand!

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Raising the roof!!

The weather is giving us a little taste of Spring this week, and we’re looking ahead into a bright season to come. In particular, our green thumbs are starting to itch!

In the next couple months, we will relaunch the container garden built last year on the roof of our Southeast Center — and we’ll also build a largescale vegetable garden on the roof of our Northwest Center! The garden will feature up to 40 raised beds on the roof of our new building, with up to 1,000 plants total in about 3,500 square feet of space.

We’re excited for these new spaces, and not just for the fresh produce they’ll bring to our pantries and clients’ dinner tables. These gardens will function as spaces for community building and education.

Initial soil layer of the green roof.
Photo courtesy of Xi Wang. 

Just last night, a group of Bread for the City clients gathered in our Northwest Center to share their vision for the garden. Lots of gardening experience was at the table, but even more prominent in the discussion was the role that food itself plays in community. We talked about how these gardens can be nourishing spaces that themselves encourage healthy diets. And we talked about what kinds of skills and knowledge people have to share with each other — and how working and eating together can provide a foundation for learning together and building our community’s strength.

The 3,500 square foot garden is looking like its going to take a lot of work to care for and maintain, though. We’re going to need all sorts of help. Luckily, a few organizations are giving us a jump start.

DC Greenworks, local organization that promotes green rooftop development, is currently helping us to design the garden, and they will guide us in the construction and maintenance of the raised beds. They’ll be watching over us, especially during this first season, to make sure everything grows strong and healthy.

And I’m pleased to announce that just last week Bread for the City received the help of another great partner: tool manufacturing giant Fiskars awarded us a generous grant through their Project Orange Thumb. Project Orange Thumb supports the development of gardens across the country into sites for “creative expression…civic and community collaboration, healthy hand-grown food and sustainable living.” This grant will provide Bread for the City with many of the tools and supplies our volunteers are going to need to care for the garden. Trowels, shovels, hand-rakes, knee-pads, mulch forks, pruners and loppers–they’re giving us the whole kit and caboodle. Thank you, Fiskars!!

We’ll need a lot more support from the community for this to become a truly vibrant space. You can make the dream a reality by donating to the green roof project: sponsor a plant (at an approximated $5/plant) or an entire raised bed (at $200 a bed). Garden donors will be invited to special events held in the space during spring, summer and fall. Please give today!

One last note: you can join our conversation about this project this weekend at Rooting DC, the annual gardening conference in DC (a free event! Saturday Feb 19th, Coolidge High School, Armory Room 6315 5th St NW – Takoma Station on Red Line, 62 & 63 buses). At 12pm, there will be a conversation about green roof agriculture hosted by Michael Lucy from the Anacostia Watershed Society; immediately afterwards (at 1pm), we’ll facilitate a visioning session about our gardens and how to make them great. See you there?

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Building movement toward a nourishing D.C.

This post is the fourth in a series from Bread for the City intern Allison Burket exploring the basics of food, hunger, and politics in the District.

In my previous post about food and hunger in the District, I began to explore the political landscape of DC’s food system. We learned there is no shortage of DC agencies that shape how we get food – at least 13 agencies deal with food in our city! – yet no one agency or governing body is responsible for ensuring that DC residents have access to healthy, affordable food.

Meanwhile, moving beyond the public sector, there are numerous efforts throughout the food system to ensure DC residents can enjoy healthy and affordable food.

Here at Bread for the City, we provide fresh, healthy, and tasty groceries for residents through our new-and-improved food pantry, as well as programs like Glean for the City and our new rooftop garden.

And we know of (and work with) many other exciting programs in the community. Healthy Solutions manages a produce buying co-op and runs fresh produce markets in public housing sites East of the River. DC Central Kitchen combines meal preparation for area shelters with innovative job training programs and employment opportunities for its clients, while also supporting local farmers. Common Good City Farm is growing and selling food right in the city, using its farm in LeDroit Park as a community space for sharing food production and preparation skills with neighbors. These and many other groups are improving both the health of our bodies and the health of our communities. (Emphasis on “many”: more than 460 food-related entities are mapped in the DC Food Finder.)
What if they and others could work together better to tackle the interconnected issues of nutrition, employment, poverty, hunger, and the degradation of our environment? What if these groups had a unified voice in the halls of City Council?

A Food Policy Council in DC?

Cities across the country face similar challenges as those in DC – a fractured food policy-making environment, separate organizations addressing different pieces of a broken food system, and lack of transparency and community input in policy decisions. In response, many areas have brought together some combination of non-governmental organizations, citizens, advocates, and government, forming what are often known as food policy councils. (See this DC Food For All post about the Detroit food movement, and the policy council in that city.)

Food policy councils can serve as a forum for food issues, a network to coordinate community action, and a space to address some of the tangible injustices at work in our food system. They do a wide range of work in other cities, counties, and states — from gathering and communicating information about a food system, to crafting policy platforms, to developing collaborative projects to address immediate needs.

Bread for the City is interested in seeing something like a food policy council form in DC, but we also recognize that it will need to include more than policy wonks and non-profit providers if it is to be truly reflective of the interests of our diverse communities. A food policy council would ideally be born of a grassroots, city-wide movement for wellness and food sovereignty that includes residents who themselves have the most at stake in radically changing the food system.

That’s why we’re part of a larger conversation with groups like Groundwork Anacostia, the Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Collaborative, Ecolocity, and ONE DC. Together, we’re hosting a series of brainstorming sessions around the city, starting 3:30-4:30 pm this Saturday at Coolidge High School, as part of Rooting DC – an annual, free urban gardening forum. (Register for Rooting DC by calling 202-638-1649, or learn more about the whole conference by visiting the website.)

We’ll be discussing and envisioning: What would it look like for all DC residents had access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food? What is an idea you have for moving the city, your neighborhood, or your self in that direction? The hope is that the discussion generated from this and upcoming sessions can then shape the formation something like a food policy council – or something completely new and different – in DC. We hope to see you there!

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