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.