- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2010

Marion Barry displayed his own brand of conservatism Monday during an hours-long hearing on welfare reform.

A stream of advocates testified against placing limitations on the cash allotments that needy families receive, arguing that families already in distress may fall into the abyss. But Mr. Barry said the D.C. program is broken and needs fixing because it may be “adding to the disintegration of the family.”

“I consider myself liberal, someone who thinks government should step in when we can’t take care of ourselves,” said Mr. Barry, a lifelong advocate of the needy. “But this [welfare] program may be adding to the disintegration of the family.”

His comments came during a hearing on the D.C. Public Assistance Amendment Act, which would finally track the 1996 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law by placing a 60-month lifetime limit on receiving cash assistance.

Mr. Barry and co-sponsor Yvette Alexander said they merely are facing the cold, hard fact that the D.C. welfare-to-work policy fails to end generational cycles of poverty and dependency.

Theirs is not a popular legislative proposition, as the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has long been opposed by anti-poverty groups because it imposes that lifetime limit and offers states flexibility to mandate that recipients get a job, train for a job and/or enroll in a continuing-education program.

But the District has been far more lenient, the two lawmakers said.

The city’s human services contractors don’t keep good statistics on who is working and who is not, and interagency record-sharing falls short, too.

So instead of helping people move toward self-sufficiency, D.C. welfare policies have created a “generational cycle,” Ms. Alexander told The Washington Times.

“This is not a measure to take anyone off the rolls,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to help them. For far too long, public assistance has become a generational cycle. People look to it as a way of life.”

That cycle is particularly harmful to young mothers, Ms. Alexander said.

“A lot of teenage girls have babies, and this is the way they start off their new lives,” she said. “Then they find out that the stipend [of $374] is not enough to raise a family.”

The hearing on the Barry-Alexander bill came amid the council’s consideration of another welfare reform measure, the D.C. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Educational Opportunities and Accountability Act, which would mandate employment components and tougher oversight.

For example, the D.C. measure would realign education opportunities with federal rules that define education as “directly related to employment” and require agencies to collect and report welfare recipients’ job-readiness status and employment data, including salary.

Mr. Barry said that because the Fenty administration didn’t institute welfare reform, the city faces a burgeoning program of unchecked spending and has “failed in its mission.” He used city data to prove it.

More than 17,800 residents are receiving TANF, and more than 9,000 already have surpassed the 60-month limit, including 2,500 who have been on welfare for longer than eight years, he said.

The new welfare-to-work measures will establish needs-based assessments to help shift the paradigm from government dependency to personal responsibility, Mr. Barry told advocates.

To illustrate his point, Mr. Barry mentioned a neighbor of his in Southeast Washington. He said she gets “$400 or $500 worth of food stamps but won’t get up in the morning and fix breakfast” for her children.

“We need to give the new mayor indication of what needs to be done,” he said. “I’m so glad we have a new direction going on here.”

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