Photo by wallyg on Flickr.

Marion Barry is right: generational poverty endangers communities and families. However, enforcing a time limit for welfare benefits is not the way to build strong communities or support families. 

Councilmembers Marion Barry (Ward 8) and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) recently introduced a bill to limit Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (also known as TANF and hereafter referred to as welfare) recipients to 60 months of welfare benefits.

After those 60 months are up, families would also be ineligible for other public benefits such as Medicaid, child care subsides, or food stamps.

It’s a lot easier to blame the victim than to take the time and resources to fix the problem. Mr. Barry told the Washington Times that one of his neighbors gets “$400 or $500 worth of food stamps but won’t get up in the morning and fix breakfast” for her children.

Yes, there are differences in parenting styles by social class, but to assume that low-income parents are less caring, concerned, or invested, or unskilled caregivers is not true and unfair. If anything truly puts families and children at a disadvantage, it is growing up in poor neighborhoods without access to jobs, good schools, or child care providers.

Barry and Alexander’s proposed legislation also fails to understand the dynamics of welfare usage. Most families do not intend to use welfare as their only source of income, but rely on welfare to make ends meet. Instead, most families that enter welfare exit relatively quickly to take low-paying jobs. Families able to maintain full-time, year-round work are much better off than before.

Others, however, end up returning to welfare. Not surprisingly, the most vulnerable are single mothers with little work experience or education. The wealth of research done since the 1996 welfare reform act indicate that there are numerous barriers that may affect a recipient’s ability to transition from welfare to work, including physical disabilities or health limitations, availability of child care, mental health problems, health of behavioral problems of children, substance abuse, domestic violence, involvement with the child welfare system, housing instability, low basic skills, and learning disabilities.

Similar to the nation, welfare and food stamp usage in the District has fluctuated over the last ten years. The number of individuals on welfare was 46,576 in 2000, fell to a low of 42,300 in 2008, and rose to 45,136 in 2009. Since 2000, food stamp usage has increased by more than 20,000 individuals, from 80,510 in 2000 to 107,618 in 2009. It is clear that welfare and food stamp usage have gone up recently because of the recession, not an increase in long-term users trying to abuse the system. 

Without supports, the families that Barry aims to help won’t be able to overcome a multitude of barriers. Just like how education loans/grants, mortgage tax credits, etc., help middle class families achieve a higher standard of living, social support programs like welfare, food stamps, and child care subsidies present a potential solution for low-income families.

Instead of placing limits on welfare, the DC council should support the TANF Opportunities and Accountability Act of 2010 sponsored by Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Michael Brown (at-large). The bill would invest in job training and educational programs as well as develop a better system to track welfare recipients in order to better understand when and why families enter and exit social programs.

The welfare system is far from perfect, but as the District faces continued economic turmoil brought on by the recession, this is not the time to limit access to important social safety nets. District food banks, shelters, and other social services are already strained and woefully unprepared to face coming economic hardships as the economy tries to build itself back up. Families that have not been able to leave welfare are some of the most disadvantaged families without any means of support other than social programs.

If Barry and Alexander are serious about reducing poverty and thus reducing welfare usage, they must propose more innovative policies with a multi-pronged approach that involves families, neighborhoods, educators, and employers.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.