Five years, and you're done: D.C. moves to set strict welfare time limits

In a surprise move, representatives from the District of Columbia’s poorest areas put forward a controversial regulation that would limit a family’s access to all public assistance to five years. Food stamps, medicaid, child care assistance, housing vouchers, welfare, education, job training –if the government has a program to help you out, you’ve got a strict time limit.

You might expect something like this to come out of some rich conservative’s microphone, but why is it being proposed by Marion Barry and Yvette Alexander? A majority of their constituents live in poverty.

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Barry says that the original purpose of welfare was to help families get back on their feet after a time of economic stress.

“The current [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] program, let’s face it, both locally and
nationally, has failed to alleviate long-term poverty, allowing
individuals to continue on this cycle of reliance and dependency,” says

Barry says he wants to “break the cycle” of inter-generational poverty.
There’s few who would argue with that purpose. Bizarre regulations,
quotas and poor administrative system keep families at the mercy of
welfare case workers. In Illinois, if you want to get welfare, you have
to leave behind any hope
of getting an education so you can permanently move out of poverty.
Some wonder if the system is more about retaining an underclass of
workers for low-wage jobs than about helping those workers become
educated and self-sufficient.

Barry found that even though there’s 17,800 families on D.C.’s welfare rolls, only 500, or about 3 percent, of those families are actually in compliance with program rules. Barry says that proves the system is broken and needs to be fixed.

“We have reached a point in the TANF system where it is no longer fulfilling its purpose–to successfully place recipients back into the workforce–and we need to identify what we are doing wrong and best practices across this country,” he says.

But all this makes me wonder about the smallest recipients of welfare programs: children. Nationally, 5.9 million children live in low-income households. That’s 46 percent of all children. While a “get tough” program may launch some families out of dependence on welfare, it also may leave quite a few more children hungry, with poor supervision, without decent housing or health care of any kind.

Helping families toward long-term self-sufficiency may be an important goal, but hungry children could be a pretty awful side effect.

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