In the welfare office of the District Department of Human Services, or DHS, in Southeast Washington, Supervisor Rene Smith is conducting an intake interview with a woman in her 20s. The woman's 3-year-old daughter fidgets on her lap, while a desk fan blows behind Smith, stirring the humid air.
"I'm looking for anything to get my foot in the door," said Ms. Johnson, who declined to have her first name used. "I'm a fast learner, so I'll take anything around."
Johnson is about to join one of the roughly 17,000 families in the District who are in the city's welfare program, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But for many recipients, the assistance is hardly temporary -- nearly one-third have been receiving checks for at least five years, the point at which federal funding for the program cuts off and D.C. taxpayers begin footing the bill.
The D.C. Council considered ending funding for longtime recipients but partially restored it because many of their needs hadn't yet been assessed. DHS leaders have spent the last year revamping welfare to make recipients more accountable, and officials hope to have everyone reassessed by October.
|By the numbers|
|17,000 -- D.C. families on welfare|
|6,000 ?-- Families on welfare for 5-plus years|
|13,000 -- Families that include a work-eligible adult|
|30 -- Percentage of these families that are homeless|
|Source: Dept. of Human Services|
"Under the previous model, the laws allowed customers to languish in the system," said Deborah Carroll, a DHS administrator. "If you didn't show up to the employment vendor when you were referred, we couldn't do the ... individual responsibility plan, and if you couldn't do the individual responsibility plan, we couldn't sanction them. So customers were able to basically game the system."
Of the roughly 13,000 people eligible to work, the DHS employment vendors could only handle 3,000 people at a time, DHS Director David Berns said. Under the new system, which is structured to serve everyone who is work-ready, recipients are responsible for creating their own goals and will face repercussions if they don't participate.
Berns said a similar program he implemented in Colorado brought the original 3,800 long-term welfare recipients down to 12 within five years.
In Johnson's case, Smith, who sees 100 people each week, has set her up with child care vouchers and a job placement service for part-time work and help pursuing an associate business degree.
"I personally think the reason people game the system isn't because they don't want to work ... it's because they really feel they're just wasting their time in the system," said Berns. "So we have to change their whole [experience], and you have to do that through a relationship and knowing who they are and what's going on."