The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 3, 2015

How benefit cuts affect vulnerable DC families

DC has been enjoying a prolonged economic boom. Young professionals are flocking to the city and there are dozens of new restaurants, shops, and a thriving arts scene. But many DC residents, especially African American families living in poor communities east of the Anacostia River, face a different reality, one where unstable jobs and shrinking federal benefits leave them at risk of hunger and homelessness.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has made eliminating homelessness a priority for her administration, but it is not just homeless families who are suffering. We’ve found that most families living in public housing are also struggling to afford enough food. With Congress debating further cuts to SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps), their prospects look even worse.

The fact that DC public housing families are in such dire straits is particularly alarming because historically, the District has been relatively generous to its poorest residents.

For years, DC paid Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for families that reached the federal five-year limit imposed during the Clinton administration as part of welfare reform. But in 2011, the city announced that it would no longer do so. Families that passed the lifetime limit would see graduated reductions spread out over four and a half years, from March 2011 through October 2015.

And though SNAP benefits went up during the worst of the Great Recession, Congress cut them again during the sequester.

In the public housing developments where we work, we’re hearing and seeing the results of these policy changes. One family of eight is especially struggling. According to the mother, late last year, their TANF funds disappeared entirely and SNAP benefits were cut from $1,000 per month to $300. She said she was told they’d reached the 60-month limit, so even now that her husband has lost his part-time job, they won’t be eligible for TANF. One of their only other sources of income is the Social Security disability benefit they receive to care for a son. Yet because this family lives in public housing on a housing subsidy, they are arguably better off than some of their peers who experience or are at risk of homelessness.

One-third of children in DC live in a household that receives TANF. While the impact of the current cuts on adults is severe, the damage this type of deprivation inflicts on children is devastating. A large body of research shows that some of the cognitive effects of intense and prolonged periods of stress early in life, such as the anxiety and turmoil that can be part of living in deep poverty, are irreversible. Financial instability can damage children’s health, self-esteem, and ability to focus in school. It also makes them easy targets for exploitation, particularly around drug and sex trafficking, and other unhealthy survival tactics.

The mom we spoke to doesn’t know what she’ll do next. 

“When you’re receiving benefits, you can get programs you need,” she said, “like daycare and welfare-to-work [job training]. I asked if I could do work training. They said no. They keep you in a bind, and it’s not fair.”

Mayor Bowser has promised to lay out a “pathway to the middle class.” But first, she needs to make sure that all DC families have the resources to feed, clothe, and house their children. 

Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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