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Allen plans to propose welfare changes

(Published November 19, 2001)

By TIFFANY BROWNE

Staff Writer

Families that attended a recent welfare reform "listening session," sponsored by Councilwoman Sandra Allen, said they have been struggling to obtain a self-sufficient life while clinging to the Districtís Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Allen, chair of the councilís Committee on Human Services, said she has been concerned with the TANF programís emphasis on participants finding permanent jobs, especially with entry-level jobs now limited as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent layoffs.

Many welfare recipients are facing a March 2002 deadline to find a job that produces enough steady income to support their families, since a five-year lifetime limit was imposed for receiving public assistance as part of "welfare-to-work" revisions. However, participating families said they find it hard to obtain self-sufficiency due to a lack of support from the Districtís TANF program facilitators.

The listening session, attended by about 40 persons in mid-October at Martin Luther King Memorial Library, served as a forum for TANF and welfare-to-work participants to voice their opinions on issues that they felt were both positive and negative elements of the program. During the session, concerns expressed by the participants were listed and given to Allen.

Allen said she plans to propose improvements to the cityís welfare system.

Participants at Allenís session said they are frustrated by a lack of communication between the vendors and the agencies to which they are sent as part of the welfare-to-work program. One woman explained how she was told to report to a specific office in a local government agency, but when she arrived no one in the office seemed to be aware that she was coming.

"This is an embarrassment to us. We are told to go one place, but no one is prepared for us when we walk in the door," said another woman.

Other frustrations included how vendors do not consider any previous training the participants may have had and place them into positions they are not qualified for. Participants also felt the TANF/Welfare-to-Work facilitators should provide transportation expenses for those who have to travel across the city to their designated workplace.

Three teen mothers who attended the session complained about a lack of available, affordable housing. All said the waiting period to be placed in assisted housing is more than three years. While waiting, the teen mothers said they have been staying with relatives until they can get their own home.

One teen mother complained that the governmentís case managers and vendors want to reach participants "on their own time," rather than being available when they need help, and that every time she has tried to contact someone, she is connected to voicemail.

Child care is a major problem for most of the persons who attended the listening session. Many mothers said the procedures to process paperwork for childcare assistance sends them to two separate locations that are not near one another. Several complained that the inconvenience of the system causes them transportation problems, which then have created work-related problems for them when they arrive late at a job site or training program.

While there were many complaints during the session, participants also offered some suggestions to improve the Districtís welfare system. Participants suggested that solid relations need to be made between D.C. public schools, the D.C. Department of Human Services and the adult education program.

"I will be talking with contractors who are involved with the welfare-to-work program to get an update and check the progress of the participants," Allen pledged. "I will also be talking with the Department of Human Services concerning the child care issue brought up at the session."

Allen said she is working with the Income Maintenance Administration on a strategy to not only improve the welfare system, but also to help families who will reach the five-year time limit before they are ready to get off welfare. Allen said she plans to sponsor quarterly listening sessions for TANF recipients.

The welfare-to-work program was designed to provide job-training skills for those who are a part of the TANF program and to help them maintain a job to become self-sufficient. According to a report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in March 2001, D.C. officials have estimated that 2,652 families will reach the five-year limit for benefits in March 2002 and an additional 2,511 families will reach the limit in December 2002.

The report also stated that the District government would provide continued cash assistance to families that reach the time limit while efforts continue to help parents obtain employment. The report noted that when the time limit is reached, families are expected to be participating in assigned work unless they are exempt. If families are not either exempt or participating, a reduced amount of cash assistance will be given to the family.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator