>Food stamp expansion bill passes!

>Yesterday, along with the rest of the budget, the DC City Council passed legislation that will significantly expand the eligibility for and amount of food stamp assistance in the District. The Food Stamp Expansion Act of 2009 will help thousands of poor DC families while also bringing millions of federal dollars into the city.

This bill was basically a no-brainer, and it passed with unanimous support. But the real leadership on the issue came from Councilmember Michael Brown. Our sincere thanks go out to Councilmember Brown (as well as Councilmember Tommy Wells, who also led on this issue).

As we’ve reported here before, the food stamp expansion will eliminate the program’s “asset cap” of $2,000, which previously meant that families would have to spend down their savings before qualifying for assistance. Through a measure called “Heat and Eat,” the act also automatically enrolls all food stamp participants in a utility assistance program that, in turn, increases the amount of food stamps that they can receive. And most notably, the Act raises the qualifying level of income to 200% of the Federal Poverty Line–up from the previous level of 130%.

Independently, these policy changes might seem incremental. But they will compound with the recent (and major) increase in food stamp assistance levels from the federal stimulus bill. As a result, $15 to $21 million in new federal funding will be brought to our low-income residents. (And the entire city benefits from that influx of food assistance, as these stamps will generate approximately $25 to $35 million in local economic activity.)

When news of this policy change spread among Bread for the City staff, I heard a common reaction: there are lots of opportunities in DC for policy to extend more forms of assistance to more people, but it takes time, focus, and engagement with our elected officials to make even simple no-brainer changes happen.

So on that note: our “Next Most Promising Low Hanging Fruit” contest is still open! Point out the next big (or even small) win, lay out the road map to change, and you will receive a copy of the 2009 Food Stamp Expansion Bill signed by YOUR FAVORITE X-MAN. Contact me with your submission. (Check here and here for inspiration.) Si se puede!

>Budget Time: Contact City Council!

>Posting this from a DCFPI email:

With less than 24 hours to go before the final budget vote, the DC Council needs to hear from you! Tell Councilmembers to protect funding for affordable housing and other low-income programs and remind them that these programs still need more support. Call or email the Council before the final budget vote at 10 AM tomorrow, May 12.

Thank the Council for finding:

  • $750,000 for the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP)
  • $750,000 for Housing First
  • $1.5 million for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance
  • $2 million for the Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP)
  • Funding to restore cost-of-living increases for Standard Deduction and Personal Exemption

Remind the Council that affordable housing and low-income programs still need additional funding:

  • TANF cash assistance: $1.2 million
  • Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP): at least $3 million
  • Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP): $5 million
  • Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF): currently underfunded by $41 million

What You Can Do
1. Send an email to your Ward Councilmember and Council Chair Vincent Gray. Complete contact information for Council members can be found below.

2. Follow up with a phone call or email to your Councilmember.

Councilmember Emails/Phone Numbers
(Note: If you do not know which ward you are in, you can find it by entering your address here.)

Vincent C. Gray, Council Chairman
vgray@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8032

Jim Graham (Ward 1)
jgraham@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8181

Jack Evans (Ward 2)
jackevans@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8058

Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3)
mcheh@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8062

Muriel Bowser (Ward 4)
mbowser@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8052

Harry Thomas, Jr. (Ward 5)
hthomas@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8028

Tommy Wells (Ward 6)
twells@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8072

Yvette M. Alexander (Ward 7)
yalexander@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8068

Marion Barry (Ward 8)
mbarry@dccouncil.us
Tel: (202) 724-8045

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>Budget Update! Funding Found for Critical Programs

>We are in the home stretch with the City budget! Each Committee has had hearings for the agencies within their purview and, as of the end of last week, all of the Committees have voted on their Mark-Up Reports.

A number of good things came out of the Committee mark-ups — overall, it was an encouraging process for the sake of critical safety net programs, especially given the scale of the budget crisis. Last week, Beyond Bread posted about the Judiciary Committee’s approval of funding for civil legal services to the poor.

Now, we find out that some other things SOME and BFC care about—access to food, housing, homeless services, and income supports—have support for needed funding as well.

Most notably, the Public Works and Transportation Committee, chaired by Councilmember Jim Graham, moved to generate revenue that would prop up quite a few programs that are essential to the health of low-income communities. (Graham has been working hard at this recently: after budget cuts last fall, he fought successfully for increases to parking meter pricing; but those funds were ultimately redirected to general funding, as opposed to specific social service programs.) This time he put forth another proposal that would generate revenue from DC’s Street Sweeper Cam Initiative. The initiative calls for mounting cameras on street sweepers and photographing the license plates of illegally parked cars. Tickets would generate an estimated $6.8 million of revenue for Fiscal Year 2010.

A slew of new $40 parking tickets isn’t likely to warm the heart, but look at what the generated revenue would go to fund:

The committee also identified $2.9 million in additional revenue through a previously unnoticed accounting error, and recommends using this money to restore the cost of living adjustment to the standard income tax deduction, since the loss of a cost of living adjustment would be in effect a regressive tax measure. This is another smart, just move that was advocated by the Coalition for Community Investment (in which Bread for the City and SOME are both active members).

We extend a big thank-you to Councilmember Graham for truly diligent work in finding this funding, all of which will help the entire District of Columbia to weather the economic crisis and stay poised for a quick recovery.

These increases are crucial, but they barely scratch the surface of need. Homeless families can tell you that – and it’s not hard to find them, since this year has seen a 25% increase of homeless families in DC.

And, of course, the Committee process so far has only offered forth budget recommendations; now, it’s up to City Council to act on them. And it’s up to us to hold them accountable. The first vote on the budget by the Committee of the Whole is next week, on May 12th. Express your support for these recommendations by emailing City Council at dccouncil@dccouncil.us.

You can also use SOME’s Action Tool to write to City Councilmembers to tell them that additional funding is needed. And the Fair Budget Coalition will rally outside of City Council (1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) in support of affordable housing, TANF, and homeless services, this Wednesday at noon 12-1. It’s during lunchtime, and a great opportunity to help out your low-income and homeless neighbors.

Stay tuned for more details as things unfold this week. (And for a more detailed description of the budget calendar, see the DCFPI Budget Toolkit.)

Councilmember Jim Graham, stepping up big-time.

Coalition for Community Investment supports the Equitable Income Tax Act

>As part of the Coalition for Community Investment, Bread for the City has signed on to the following letter in support of the 2009 Equitable Income Tax Act, which would adopt revenue-raising measures without unduly burdening the most vulnerable DC residents in this time of economic crisis.

The Coalition for Community Investments supports the Equitable Income Tax Act of 2009, a bill that would set a new income tax bracket for households earning more than $500,000. This proposal, which closely follows one of the Coalition’s revenue-raising recommendations, would raise revenues to address DC’s serious budget shortfall and help preserve services that support DC families and neighborhoods. The Equitable Income Tax Act would raise revenues in a progressive way, with no effect on low-and moderate income households. It offers a good alternative to several revenue proposals in the FY 2010 budget that would fall most heavily on low-income residents.

A number of states have established a new income tax rate for higher-income households in recent years, including Maryland, California and New Jersey — and other states such as Delaware are considering doing so. The new tax rate of 8.9 % in the DC bill would increase taxes by just $400 for a family earning $600,000. It would leave the DC’s top income tax rate below the top rate in the Maryland suburbs — now 9.45 percent when both state and county income taxes are considered.

Leading economists endorse this approach to addressing state budget deficits. Peter Orzag (now head of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz have noted that “tax increases on higher-income families are the least damaging mechanism for closing state fiscal deficits in the short run.” They note that cuts in government programs can be damaging to local economies. Tax increases on higher-income families have a more limited effect because these families spend and invest much of their income outside of the local area and because modest tax increases are unlikely to affect their consumption.

The revenues that would be raised by the Equitable Income Tax Act could be used to restore funding to a number of programs that have been cut in recent years — such as affordable housing or pre-K education. These services are important to DC residents and to the DC economy.

The proposal to raise revenues through a new income tax bracket offers a good alternative to regressive revenue-raising provisions in the FY 2010 budget. The budget would eliminate cost-of-living adjustments to three tax benefits that are important to low-income families: the personal exemption, standard deduction, and property tax homestead deduction. And it would establish a new streetlight maintenance fee and increase the E911 fee, adding roughly $60 to annual utility bills for DC households. These would fall especially hard on low-income families who already struggle to pay utility bills and often face the threat of a utility shut-off.

In February 2009, the Coalition for Community Investment released recommendations for raising revenues or finding budget savings, including a recommendation to create a new bracket for families above a certain income level. The Coalition thus supports the Equitable Income Tax Act as one of several possible ways to raise revenues and preserve services, without adversely affecting low- and moderate-income families.

The Coalition for Community Investment represents over 160 diverse organizations and individuals committed to public investments that expand economic opportunity for our neighborhoods and families, and support a fair and transparent budget process. If you or your organization would like to join with us in the Coalition for Community Investment, please email signstatement[AT]some[DOT]org.

Sign on letter: No regressive taxes in the budget

>It’s Budget Season. With an $800 million deficit crisis, the city faces tough choices. Overall, Mayor Fenty’s budget proposal is encouraging: in particular, he has proposed to raise $120 million in new revenues. This will help preserve funding for many important public services.

But several of the proposed tax and fee increases (among them, the elimination of cost-of-living adjustments for certain tax credits) would fall most heavily on low-income residents.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute is calling for action. The letter below urges Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray to raise critical revenue in ways that don’t disproportionately impact the poor. Bread for the City has co-signed; will you, or your organization, join us? (The deadline for signing on is Wednesday April 22; please email Ed Lazere to join.)

We are writing to express our concern over several tax and fee increases in the proposed FY 2010 budget that would fall most heavily on low-income residents, particularly on renters and the working poor. We urge the Council and Mayor to develop alternate ways to raise revenues that are progressive and do not adversely affect low-income residents.

We applaud the Mayor’s efforts to identify additional revenues to offset the city’s serious budget shortfall. The additional revenues help preserve funding for important public services in the FY 2010 budget. Many of the revenue proposals are sound, such as the proposal to close the “Delaware Holding Company” corporate tax shelter.

Some of the tax and fee increases, however, would be highly regressive, including the proposal to eliminate cost-of-living adjustments for the standard deduction, personal exemption, and property tax homestead deduction, as well as the proposals to create a new “streetlight maintenance” fee and to raise the E911 fee. Together, these regressive tax and fee changes total $26 million.

The standard deduction, personal exemption, and homestead deduction make DC’s tax system more progressive. The standard deduction is claimed by households that are not able to itemize deductions, including most renters and lower-income households. The personal exemption applies to all taxpayers and the homestead deduction applies to all homeowners. But because the value of these deductions is the same for all taxpayers, the deductions offset a larger share of income and home value for lower-income households.

Making annual cost-of-living adjustments to these tax benefits is important. Until recently, each of these deductions had remained frozen for 15 years or more and had lost significant ground to inflation. The deductions have been increased in recent years, and the DC Council adopted cost-of living adjustments in 2007 so that the deductions would not lose value in the future.

Eliminating cost-of-living adjustments to the standard deduction, personal exemption, and homestead deduction would result in higher taxes for DC residents than if current law were maintained. The impact of rising taxes would fall most heavily on lower-income residents, who benefit the most from these deductions. And the tax increases would grow each year, as these deductions fall further and further below the value they would reach if they were adjusted for inflation.

The proposals to create a new streetlight maintenance fee and to increase the E911 fee also are regressive and will adversely affect low-income residents. The streetlight maintenance fee would add $51 dollar to annual electricity bills, and the increased 911 fee would add roughly $10 a year to phone bills. While these fees may be manageable for middle and higher-income families, they would place a burden on low-income families, many of whom struggle to pay utility bills and face utility shut-offs as a result of non-payment.

For these reasons, we urge the Mayor and Council to maintain the cost-of-living adjustments for the standard deduction, personal exemption, and homestead deduction. We also recommend rejection of the streetlight maintenance fee and the E911 fee increase — unless steps can be taken to ensure that all low-income households can be exempted. We urge the Mayor and Council to find alternate revenue sources for the FY 2010 budget that would not adversely affect low-income residents.

For more about the budget, check out DCFPI’s as-yet-unnamed new blog, and also their excellent and accessible Budget Toolkit. Many thanks to Ed Lazere and DCFPI for their vital work.

Beyond Bread: Supporting Reusable Bags

>~Bread for the City recently came out in support of the Bag Bill, a measure that would put a five cent fee on plastic and paper bags at grocery stores. As we discussed, Councilmember Wells came to our Southeast Center to discuss the specifics of the legislation, and also take suggestions from our staff on how to implement the program in a way that didn’t disproportionately affect low-income residents. A number of helpful measures were built into the bill, but on top of that reusable bags will be available for Bread for the City, public agencies, and other non-profits to distribute free of charge. Greater Greater Washington, And Now, Anacostia, The River East Idealist, and Congress Heights on the Rise have also come out in support of the measure which we believe will help drastically reduce contamination of the Anacostia River.

~The AFRO started a series to document what homelessness really means in the nation’s capital. The first article by Joseph Young follows Myra Diggs, a 43 year old woman whose bipolar disorder was misdiagnosed.

~TPM had a nice write-up about how Bread for the City is handling the weak economy, the Poverty & Policy Blog continued our discussion of how TANF needs to be given a cost of living adjustment (among other things), and renewshaw has a helpful, condensed list of all the changes (including Bread for the City’s expansion) that are slated to take place in Shaw.

Let’s Pass the Bag Bill

>
The City held hearings yesterday for a proposed fee on plastic bags, as part of a concerted effort to clean up the Anacostia river.

Apparently, plastic bags comprise almost half of the trash in the Anacostia tributaries. The proposed fee is a nickel per bag (paper and plastic both), and a government-commissioned report estimates that this would reduce waste in the river by up to 68%. Furthermore, the city would save some of the many millions of dollars that it currently spends on trash cleanup, while the fee itself generates a new fund for the purpose of additional river revitalization efforts. (Not to mention, all this will enable DC to avoid the hefty fines about to be smacked down upon polluting cities by a newly-funtional EPA.)

It’s a good policy, and it has broad support in City Council and the community.

And yet Councilmember Tommy Wells, one of the driving forces behind the bill, paid a special visit to Bread for the City on Monday, to make a few important reassurances to us about the proposed legislation. Councilmember Wells was well aware that while a five cent bag fee won’t register on many District residents, that kind of change certainly adds up for those who have to make each dollar stretch.

Indeed, Bread for the City staff had previously discussed the fact that this seemingly win-win policy would actually be regressive for our clientele. A few weeks ago, emails were circulating that even considered public opposition to the bill. The Councilmember informed us that, in addition to emails, residents of low income communities had been receiving robocalls that tried to gin up opposition to the bill. All, apparently, part of a coordinated obstructionist effort by “Big Bag”! [UPDATE: Marc Fisher at the Post posted on this matter right around the time we did.]

In truth, the legislation is carefully designed to lessen the fee’s impact on the poor even while generating more environmental returns. Councilmember Wells mentioned the supply of reusable bags that will be made available through stores, housing projects, public agencies and organizations like Bread for the City. We also shared some ideas with him about how to outreach to seniors and, most important of all, schools.

The bill’s opponents imply that low income communities aren’t themselves invested in their environment — and, perhaps more cynically, that conservationist methods won’t work just as well as heedless waste. We look forward to demonstrating otherwise.

Expanding food stamps

>Well something’s about to go right: Councilmember Michael A. Brown has introduced legislation that will expand eligibility for food stamps for DC residents. All Councilmembers have signed on as co-sponsors, and several are pushing hard for it – we are told this bill is a “shoo-in.”

DC Hunger Solutions has the details. Essentially the legislation does two separate things. One, it expands eligibility for the food stamps program from 130% of the Federal Poverty line to 200%. The other action taken by the legislation is fairly technical: it links food stamp eligibility to TANF funding, so that anyone participating in a TANF-funded program will themselves also be eligible for food stamps.

The legislation will bring an estimated 4600 to 4800 new families into the program within the first year, for a benefit of about $30-60 per household per month.

At the same time, President Obama’s stimulus plan will increase the SNAP food stamp benefit up to 18%, further leveraging the impact of Councilmember Brown’s bill. As a result, his office estimates that an additional $15 to 20 million of federal funding will flow into the District in the form of food stamps. In stimulus terms, this is all gravy: food stamps are reportedly the most effective form of economic stimulus, generating $1.73 of economic activity for every $1 of food stamp. That’s about $25 to $30 million of additional economic activity for DC.

This was low-hanging fruit, a no-brainer way to help those who need it the most while stimulating the city’s economy all at little or no cost to the city itself. Here at Bread for the City, we thank Councilmember Michael Brown for his initiative, and applaud DC Hunger Solutions for their leading role as well. Now here’s the tough question: what’s next?

More Budget Bull Sessions

>Following up on what has proven to be a popular post, here are some more opportunities for you to learn about the DC budget at sessions, put on in part by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Department of Disability Services
March 30, 2009
4:00 PM – 5:30 PM
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library: 901 G Street, NW, Room A-5
RSVP to advocacy@arcdc.net

Department of Healthcare Finance
April 1, 2009
11:30 AM – 1:00 PM
825 North Capitol Street, NE, Suite 500

Child and Family Services Administration
April 1, 2009
2:30-4:30 PM
441-4th Street, NW, Room 1114
Register here.

Department of Housing and Community Development
April 2
2:00-4:30 PM
True Reformer Building, 1200 U Street NW
RSVP to Bettina Myers at bmyers@cnhed.org

Department of Health
April 6, 2009
10:00 AM-12:00 PM
825 North Capitol Street, NE
(Dr. Pierre Vigilance, DOH Director, to speak and facilitate.)
RSVP to reed@dcfpi.org by April 1st

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Taking on TANF

>Yesterday was the annual budget hearing for the Department of Human Services (DHS), the agency that administers the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides cash assistance, job training, and other critical services for vulnerable families facing a period of unemployment. The hearing is one of the few opportunities each year for the public to engage in discourse about how the city administers TANF.

So the advocates were out in force — SOME advocate (and friend of Bread) Joni Podschun delivered testimony along with DC Fiscal Policy Institute, DC Women’s Agenda, and Legal Aid. I’m told that things got lively — and for those of us who hope to see the TANF program revisited and improved, the transcript is indeed encouraging.

Last week, Joni wrote a post on this very blog about TANF. DC receives $88 million worth of TANF funding from the federal government. But it’s in the form of a block grant, which means that the city has discretion as to how the funding will be used. The core of the program is cash assistance ($427/month for a family of three) and employment services, but the $88 million is also directed towards anything from teen pregnancy prevention to college tuition, from foster care to ESL classes. Joni explained in her post that DC’s TANF program is actually “stable and robust” when compared with many other states; and yet, she concluded, “as the economic downturn threatens to push more D.C. residents into poverty, the TANF program needs to be revisited and strengthened.”

With the budget process under way, now is the time that the City can act to improve the system.

All of the advocates who testified yesterday called for the same action: increase the cash assistance by $19 a month, as a cost of living adjustment (known as a COLA). (This action is also recommended by the Fair Budget Coalition, which Bread for the City supports, and which has its recommendations in PDF form here.)

Now one might think that the level of cash assistance from TANF would be set to rise regularly in order to track with inflation — but this practice ended in 1991. Since then, the benefit has lost 34% of its value.

The COLA that the advocates called for would represent a 4.4% increase. Though that’s still a long ways from what it was decades ago, to TANF families this $19 represents a new pair of shoes for their kids, bus passes, school supplies, etc. It would cost the city a total of $2.7 million. Unfortunately, the Mayor’s proposed budget does not include such a COLA.

Toward the end of the hearing, there was an exchange between Clarence Carter, the Director of DHS, and Councilmember Tommy Wells that is worth reading to get insight into why the TANF cash benefit hasn’t increased in the face of a rising cost of living.

Wells: We proposed last year to hold off on the [TANF cash assistance] increase. For two years straight now we have had the same benefit amount. Why have you not proposed a cost of living increase?

Carter: Instead of an approach which provides a meager amount of dollars for a family, we believe that to work more intensively to grow their capacity beyond their need is a better use of the dollars. …This is opposed to taking a relatively small amount of money to increase their benefits.

Wells: …I realize that we certainly don’t want to pull back from growing people’s earning capacity. How long should we leave it at this amount? What is the decision making process or the principle for ever increasing the TANF benefit rate?

Carter: The question should be how long will we focus on insuring the family doesn’t have to exist at that capacity. …

Wells: As you know we are approaching the 10% unemployment rate. As you and I both know the number is likely larger than that. The job opportunities seem to be diminishing. It is not a job rich time to say that we’re not going to increase the TANF benefits. Everyone knows that in Maryland they have a larger benefit and the cost of living is smaller there. Here our TANF benefits are lower and we have a higher cost of living. At some point we are going to need to increase it. Would you ever—10, 20, 30 years from now—increase the benefits?

Carter: I would hope that by then we would have developed a robust mechanism that would aggressively move them beyond their current capacity so the focus would not be on the benefit amount.

[UPDATE: Joni points us here, where the conversation can be seen on video, starting at 2hrs:51minutes. Thx Joni!]

Now, Carter’s initial point is well-taken: TANF is supposed to function as a channel that will bring people into the workforce, and ultimately lead to self-sufficiency. Few would disagree with him that these are in fact important.

But people need to be healthy and safe today in order to get a job tomorrow. And to maintain that health and stability, people need a sufficient income. And as Councilmember Wells notes, we’re at a moment in which job opportunities aren’t really there to be had even for those who have gone through job training and are model candidates for employment. If there was ever a time to increase the level of cash assistance to families who need to survive in the face of unemployment, it’s now.

And in any case, it seems like Carter is presenting the Council with a false choice. It should be possible to increase the cash benefit of assistance and simultaneously work to improve the programs that will expand people’s capacity for work. SOME will soon release a report, along with DCFPI, that will have more detailed recommendations on how DHS could improve the efficiency of workforce programs — but in the meantime, our city leaders need to take a hard look at how the numbers add up between what it costs to live in DC and what assistance is available to families who don’t yet have a source of income.

During the hearing, Councilmember Wells (as well as Councilmember Michael Brown) pointedly considered the negative impact that an insufficient income has on a family, and even a community. By keeping the TANF benefit flat, the city would save $2.7 million, and thousands of DC families will face that much more instability and stress, which affects their children’s education, their physical and mental health, and their future earning potential. Penny-wise and pound foolish, indeed.

So please express your sentiment to Councilmember Wells, who showed real leadership in asking these questions. You can send him your thanks by email, or call (202) 724-8072.