The District of Columbia has long offered generous welfare benefits to poor city residents. But this week, local lawmakers suggested that more needs to be done to break dependence on government assistance. We examine a proposal to put a lifetime cap on welfare benefits, and what it would mean for D.C. residents.


  • Yvette Alexander Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 7)
  • LaDonna Pavetti Director, Welfare Reform and Income Support Division, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  • Peter Edelman Chair, D.C. Access to Justice Commission; Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center


  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a debate from the 1990s that the District of Columbia is reviving for the grim economic times of 2010. Members of the D.C. City Council are proposing that the city place caps on welfare benefits, a step that states took when federal welfare reform was enacted during the Clinton administration. Supporters of the cap say they're necessary to break the cycle of government dependence and get people out of poverty and into the workplace. But today's conversation about welfare reform is also taking place as the country is rebounding from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

  • 12:07:33

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore where this conversation about poverty and government assistance is going, both in the District and across the country, is Yvette Alexander. She is a member of the D.C. City Council. She's a Democrat who represents Ward 7. Councilmember Alexander, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:50

    MS. YVETTE ALEXANDERThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:07:51

    NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is LaDonna Pavetti. LaDonna Pavetti is the director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Donna Pavetti, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:04

    MS. LADONNA PAVETTIThank you very much for having me.

  • 12:08:05

    NNAMDIBy the way, this is a conversation that we were encouraged to start. And so we are encouraging you to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Where do you think welfare benefits belong in the safety net that the government provides for people in poverty? 800-433-8850. Yvette Alexander, you and your co-sponsor of this proposal, Marion Barry, represent the two poorest wards in the city. But you said that the city's cradling of certain people is actually hurting them. Why do you feel that way? And what does your proposal aim to do about that?

  • 12:08:40

    ALEXANDERExactly right, Kojo. I feel that far too many persons are dependent on public assistance that we offer. And you know, instead of helping them get on their feet, it has become a way of life. And we want everyone to be empowered and to be self-sufficient. And as proven over the years, that welfare just hasn't worked in that direction. It's been generational.

  • 12:09:03

    NNAMDIAs you move around your ward, where do you see the damage that's been done by these uncapped benefits? And is that the evidence you're using to argue that the program is harmful, what you see in your own part of the city?

  • 12:09:18

    ALEXANDERWell, you know, no one wants to be on public assistance. I've seen success stories, that persons in public housing actually are working and they're getting on their feet. It relates to everything, from lack of education, to poor health care, to crime. It can be linked -- poverty can be linked to everything that, you know, are ill effects in our community.

  • 12:09:44

    NNAMDIYou talked -- you mentioned the word intergenerational when you spoke a little while ago. You've been living in Ward 7 for a while. Are you seeing families who have been on public assistance going from one generation to the other without the benefit of any job training or assistance?

  • 12:10:01

    ALEXANDERExactly. And some living in that same household generation after generation. Maybe three generations in one household. And it's time to break that cycle.

  • 12:10:12

    NNAMDIDonna Pavetti, how do the welfare benefits that the District of Columbia provides compare to the benefits available in other parts of the Washington region, the DMV, so to speak?

  • 12:10:24

    PAVETTIWell, the benefits across the country are quite low. So D.C.'s benefits are -- if you take just the benefits there, about -- the TANF benefits themselves are less than 30 percent of the poverty line, and the neighboring benefits are roughly in that same area, in that same ballpark. They're all low.

  • 12:10:43


  • 12:10:43

    PAVETTIAnd they're not enough to live on for a family -- families in any part of the region.

  • 12:10:49

    NNAMDIYou've worked with the D.C. government. You're familiar with the system here -- in place here in the District. How would you characterize what the District implemented compared with what other states did when federal welfare reform was enacted under President Clinton?

  • 12:11:03

    PAVETTII think what the District did was very similar in some ways to what other areas did, what the District did as well as other places as they put into place employment services that haven't been in place before. And D.C. has had those in place for a long time. I think they also encountered some of the same problems. What happened when they put those into place is they realize that there is this broad range of needs within the population that ends up on TANF. And that we have only one set of services that are designed to, for the most part, deal with people who need help getting into the labor market and don't have their -- there's not a lot of resources for people who face other challenges such as low education, homelessness, mental health, substance abuse. So a lot of what the District has done has not been that different from other places, particularly on the employment side, and they've all struggled to make that work.

  • 12:11:54

    NNAMDIFor those of our listeners who may be unfamiliar with TANF, it means -- it's an acronym for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. So you may hear the term used a lot during the course of this discussion. Donna Pavetti, where do you see capacity in the system to make changes?

  • 12:12:09

    PAVETTIWell, I was a part for this last year, the Department of Human Services actually brought people together to really try and rethink the system. And their plan and part of that discussion was really to try and do a better job of assessing families, to figure out what their needs are, and then to really do triage, where you really try and get people who are -- who have the interest and the skills to be able to go to school, to do that, so that they move into better jobs. To -- for those people who are looking for jobs and can't find them, but that's what they want, to really do a better job of helping them to find those jobs. And the other is to really do a much better job for families who may not be best served by a temporary system, of really helping to figure out whether they should be in the disability system or served by other systems that really address those much more serious needs that people have.

  • 12:12:55

    NNAMDILaDonna Pavetti is the director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She joins us in studio to talk about rethinking welfare along with Yvette Alexander who is a member of the D.C. City Council. Yvette Alexander is a Democrat who represents Ward 7 in the District of Columbia. Yvette Alexander, both you and Councilmember Barry have said that what you're proposing is not about cutting people off. What else would change under what you're proposing other than limits on benefits?

  • 12:13:26

    ALEXANDERExactly. And the way the legislation is written for now, of course, we're gonna have to work out a lot of things, but job training is the key, and education is the key. Social services are the key. So within that five-year timeframe, all of those needs have to be, I guess, have to be summarized what that individual needs to get on their feet. And we haven't been doing a good job at that thus far, but from the time a person receives benefits, we have a five-year timeframe to get that person on the road to success.

  • 12:13:59

    NNAMDIAnd would you advocate for exemptions to your -- to the five-year benefit limits?

  • 12:14:06

    ALEXANDERThere are some exemptions as -- for example, persons who are disabled, children, who are minors -- children having children, that we want to prevent that. But certain ages are -- would be exempt for a while if there is a minor having a child...

  • 12:14:24


  • 12:14:24

    ALEXANDER...that would be an exemption for them. So there are some exemptions under this. You know, not to say cut and dry, everyone cut off in five years.

  • 12:14:32

    NNAMDIWhat about exemptions for people who simply don't have access? I saw an op-ed column in yesterday's Washington Post by Council Member Barry in which he was talking about the fact that the city's Department of Employment Services or the city in general has to do a much better job of giving people access to job training and job opportunities. Would you have an exemption for those people who simply didn't have access to job training during that five-year period?

  • 12:14:58

    ALEXANDERIf they don't have access, that would be fair enough, but, you know, you have to think of not everyone so much depending on the government. We have to have outside partners as well in the private sector that can help these persons as well.

  • 12:15:13

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Anthony in Washington D.C. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:20

    ANTHONYYeah. Thanks for taking my call. I'm -- I used to live in Ward 5, and I was represented for many years by Marion Barry, and I've also followed his political career, which is why I find it so interesting that someone who's been, you know, who's anti-progressive and someone who's been like perpetuating poverty in his own, you know, constituents, he would make some of the comments that Barry makes. Now, I agree with it, of course. But I think, you know, fundamentally, we have to get out of this mindset whether it be in Washington, D.C. or on a national level that we are owed services by government. And that whenever, you know, an individual doesn't have a job that's it up to the government to train them for a job and things like that. You know, so many people who happen to be on the welfare road, particularly those who have generational poverty, are in that cycle because, you know, one generation after the next after the next have done things like refuse to educate themselves, have done things like, you know, had minor criminal offenses (unintelligible).

  • 12:16:17

    NNAMDIThose things may all be true, Anthony, but I suspect that the concerns of people who are advocates for people who are on welfare or who are receiving temporary assistance are really looking at children who have no responsibility for the condition in which they find themselves and trying to think of ways of getting them out of that condition.

  • 12:16:37

    ANTHONYOh, yeah. And I would definitely support that, but I think that you have to also recognize that children turn into adults and when you have a child who grows up in a household where it doesn't appear that it's necessary to work for a living, when, you know, their parents are on (word?) and the grandparents are on the (word?), it becomes sociologically acceptable for children to come on the (word?) so I'm not saying...

  • 12:16:57

    NNAMDIAnd I think that's precisely the problem that...

  • 12:16:59 don't push children into working or something like that. I'm not expecting that a 5-year-old or whatever, but I'm expecting to force their parents in a position where they have to do something for themselves, so they'd change the dynamics of those children.

  • 12:17:10

    NNAMDIWhich seems to be exactly what Yvette Alexander is saying at this point, and you are saying, Anthony, that you would support putting the cap in the District of Columbia five years on that?

  • 12:17:21


  • 12:17:22

    NNAMDIOkay. How about the other services that presumably governments and, as Yvette Alexander saying, other parties are going to have to provide in order to get those people into job situations. How do you feel about that, Anthony?

  • 12:17:39

    ANTHONYI think that the government is responsible to -- for that to an extent but not as wholeheartedly as we're making it seem. I mean, we -- I remember when we have these conversations about having construction contracts, for example, limited to people -- workers in the District of Columbia and then having industry complain that they don't have enough capable people in the District of Columbia. You know, government can only do but so much. So, ultimately, you know, what do you do to put food in your mouth? And why...

  • 12:18:05


  • 12:18:05

    ANTHONY...aren't you motivated to do more to put food in your mouth? You know, government doesn't really have so much of a responsibility in that way.

  • 12:18:13

    NNAMDILet's talk about that for a second, Yvette Alexander and LaDonna Pavetti, because here we are in the middle of still a very difficult economic situation. And even though at this point, this legislation that you've introduced doesn't seem to have much chance of passage. If we're going to have the conversation, we have to talk about the budgetary restrictions that exist in the District of Columbia now, even as we're talking about training people for job training. Where would the money come from, first you, LaDonna Pavetti?

  • 12:18:41

    PAVETTII think that it's gonna be -- have to be a combination. I think that we are not going to be able to solve the problems either in the District or in other places without having a strategy that involves both trying to figure out how we can use existing resources better, cutting programs that are not ineffective -- that are ineffective, but also increasing revenues, so that we can provide the services that people need. I think it really has to be a balanced strategy, and I think that we -- it's unfortunate that the conversation is starting now at a time when there are so few jobs available, because you cannot make a welfare reform strategy work without jobs.

  • 12:19:16

    PAVETTIOne of the reasons why there was so much success in the early years of welfare reform is we had a booming economy. So when people were required to go to work, they were able to get jobs. But if you require people to go to work now and there are no jobs available for them to be able to apply for or to qualify for, then you're not gonna be successful. So we really have to figure out, how do you put the package together? How do you really think about this holistically so that school reform, early childhood education and welfare reform all go hand in hand and really are working towards the same goals?

  • 12:19:48

    NNAMDIYvette Alexander, Vincent Gray, the incoming mayor, is from your part of town, Ward 7, he represented. He campaigned on a platform that pounded on this message of jobs, jobs, jobs. What do you see as the two or three most important things he can do as mayor that will put a dent into unemployment in your ward? And even as you're answering that question, you're gonna be responsible for helping to craft the budget here that these revenues have to come from. Where are the revenues gonna come from?

  • 12:20:14

    ALEXANDERExactly, and it's tough. Everyone is taking a hit across the board. But the most important thing, and I think we all mentioned our children, our young people, education is the key. And I think that from pre-K for all, to train a child from birth is essential. And we have to get vocational training back into our schools. We have to give a broad range of what our young people can choose from. So education, in a lot of different spectrums, is definitely a key. Job creation -- everyone is talking about the Wal-Mart. That's the big buzz around town.

  • 12:20:50

    NNAMDIFour Wal-Marts. Yes.

  • 12:20:51

    ALEXANDERWal-Mart. So job creation -- the Marriott Convention Center Hotel. Job creation, and we have to. And also, a bill that I introduced earlier, that we had a hearing on, the District Domicile Act of 2010, where if you work in district government, you must live in the District of Columbia. I think we need to match our jobs with our district residents. And if they don't meet the requirements to obtain those jobs, we have to bring them up to train them to meet the demands of the jobs of the workforce in the District of Columbia. But those are three major things we have to work on.

  • 12:21:29

    NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will take your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. If you've called already, stay on the line. Have you or anyone close to you ever gone on welfare? How did you make or not make the jump from welfare to work? Call us at 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:23:44

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on rethinking welfare. What kinds of conditions do you think the D.C. government should place on welfare assistance? And should five-year caps be a part of that equation? Call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Yvette Alexander, who is a member of the D.C. City Council. She's a Democrat who represents Ward 7. And LaDonna Pavetti, director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. We go directly to the telephones. Here is Steven in Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Steven.

  • 12:24:18


  • 12:24:19

    NNAMDIYou're on the air, Steven. Go ahead.

  • 12:24:22

    STEVENI wanted to address something an earlier caller mentioned that I think your panelists are touching on today in a better way. The notion that, I think, too often, in this country, we tend to make of -- the people who are on welfare -- I'm assuming another forms of public assistance, as somehow being representative of some moral pathology rather than recognizing that they are representing something that is structural in their environments. And the idea that we can simply dismiss people as lacking some kind of essential virtue that allows them to possess jobs or to possess educational attainment that puts them in a place where they can be more economically successful, I think, is a mythology that we like to broadcast about the U.S. And what your panelists were describing today are something that is born in these situations where they live. So if we're talking about caps -- we can't talk about caps without actually talking about sensitive conditions such that caps become practical, because if we're applying caps to situations where people don't have any better opportunities, then it's kind of patting ourselves on the back for nothing.

  • 12:25:39

    NNAMDII think we're dealing with a slightly more complicated situation here, Steven, in which, on the one hand, where -- caps are being called for by two members of the D.C. City Council in a situation where there don't seem to be a great many opportunities. On the other hand, there's the kind of pathology that you talk about, in which people who have been on welfare from generation to generation, tend to develop a mindset that the government is there for their support. And they seem to be saying that the only way you get out of that mindset is to be on a position where there is both a carrot and a stick, the carrot being that you will get job training and access to job opportunities and the stick being that if you don't take advantage of those, then you get cut off. Is that what you're saying, Yvette Alexander?

  • 12:26:26

    ALEXANDERExactly. And we're not stereotyping anyone, who receives public assistance. There are many persons who have education, college degrees and higher, who have lost their jobs. And they have not been, you know, been able to become gainfully employed. So there is no profile, actually.

  • 12:26:45

    NNAMDIIf you see the article in today's Washington Post about the new International House of Pancakes in Columbia Heights and some of the people who are applying for basic serving jobs there, you get an understanding about how bad the unemployment situation is in the economy. Steven, thank you very much for your call. But, Donna, it brings me to this question. The debate over jobless benefits has become part of the regular political rhythm during this economic downturn. It seems that every couple of month, members of Congress play a game of political chicken over whether to extend jobless benefits at the federal level. Where do you see this going?

  • 12:27:17

    PAVETTII -- I'm not sure that I can predict where it will go. I think it will be up for serious consideration and we will have a whole new group of people, who will be with no means of support, if we don't extend unemployment benefits. In many ways, the issues are the same. They're just different groups of people. That people who have -- tend to have more stable jobs and higher paying jobs end up in the unemployment insurance system, although there's a wide range there and there's a lot of people that that is their safety net. And for people who end up in lowering paying jobs, work part time, end up in the welfare system for their support.

  • 12:27:54

    PAVETTISo if people have nowhere to go, they will go to their next best option and there are very few options available to them. So, I think what will happen, if we don't see unemployment insurance benefits extended, is we will end up with a lot more people, who are in desperate need of resources to meet their basic assistance. I believe it was today or maybe yesterday, there was an article in the Post as well, talking about how much increase need there is for basic food assistance. And I think, we will see more of that because people will have no where to turn. People want to work but there are no jobs available or there are very few jobs available.

  • 12:28:30

    NNAMDIHere's Bridgette in Potomac, Md. Bridgette, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:28:34

    BRIDGETTEYes. Hi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 12:28:38

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:28:39

    BRIDGETTEAnd I -- I love your show.

  • 12:28:41

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:28:42

    BRIDGETTEI get very frustrated hearing some of these tales because I know and you know that there really quite a few opportunities available for a lot of young men in the D.C. area. One of them in particular, which I do fundraising for, called the Excel Institute. And it was started by John Lyon about 20 years ago, and it trains young man who were not able to finish high school. It gives them a career in mechanics. They learn, they become certified. It has job training. They also have career counseling. And Mayor Fenty has continuously promised quite a bit of money in grants to go to the foundation. But it doesn't seem to be appearing. And I'm hoping that Vincent Gray will follow through and donate the money that's needed to help keep this institute afloat.

  • 12:29:36

    NNAMDIExactly how many young men does that institute train on an annual basis?

  • 12:29:42

    BRIDGETTEI believe they train 40 annually. It's small but it's free to the guys that are committed, and they have to show up, and they have to prove that they're committed to getting good grades and working hard. But it is available and it's a wonderful program.

  • 12:29:59

    NNAMDIYvette Alexander, what can Maryland City Council do to expand the capacity of organizations like these?

  • 12:30:06

    ALEXANDERExactly. And I'm familiar with the Excel Institute. It's a great program. With the budget, sure for, you know, we have to cut back on all the grants and the funding that we gave. But I have to tell all the organizations out there that there are a lot of other grant opportunities out there that are competitive. There are federal dollars out there. So you just have to be a little bit more creative in your funding. But I wholeheartedly support the program. And if there's anything I know that mayor-elect will do as well, he supported it as well, I know.

  • 12:30:42

    NNAMDIBridgette, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Aaron in Prince George's County, Md. Aaron, your turn.

  • 12:30:49

    AARONYeah. I work in Prince George's County with a program that partners with the Department of Social Services. And one of the things that we find is we have a large population of people, who have left school early, 75 percent of them haven't graduated. And yet, the statistics that they tell us or the benchmarks that we have to meet, you have to get somebody that doesn't even have a high school diploma, a job making at least $10 an hour, at least $15 an hour. And people that have advanced degrees are hoping for jobs like that. And my question is, at what point, if you will look at the actual requirement, the Department of Social Services puts on people that are in this place, in this position and, say, maybe we need to be a little more realistic? Someone that doesn't have a high school diploma is not gonna necessarily be able to make 10, 15 an hour. So what do we do to adjust to practical everyday, this is just the bottom line?

  • 12:31:48

    NNAMDILet me add an e-mail that we got from Amy in D.C. to what you just said, Aaron. Amy writes, "I'm not in principle opposed to a five-year limit on welfare benefits. But I'm highly skeptical as to whether the District has the wherewithal to train welfare recipients for the jobs that actually exist in the District today. This is a town with lots of white collar jobs, which require a high level education, and it has few blue collar jobs suited to people who have difficulty reading. I know how poorly educated some District residents are. I don’t think a lame job training workshop is going to help them when the jobs they're qualified for don’t even exist here. If you want to get people off welfare, get more appropriate jobs in the District." First, you, Donna Pavetti.

  • 12:32:30

    PAVETTII think that those are both good points. And I think that one thing we have to think about is part of the reason why programs -- there's often a requirement to place people into higher paying jobs is, there is an expectation if that you are helping somebody that you can do better than they could do on their own, so that that's why you're being paid to do that. But the other is, is that, if people move into a very low-paying jobs, often what happens is that the government continues to provide support in other ways. So it's really trying to help people to move into jobs that will lead to a career that will free them from public assistance for the long term. So I think what we need to be thinking about is that this really should be a conversation about opportunity and how you create those opportunities so that people are on a pathway to be able to support themselves over the long term. And I think some of those very low paying jobs don't do that.

  • 12:33:21

    NNAMDIAs I mentioned earlier, Yvette Alexander, it doesn't look like this proposal has much of a chance of moving through the council. At a hearing on the bill last week, Councilmembers Michael Brown and Tommy Wells said they opposed it, and Wells is, of course, chairman of the Human Services Committee. Where do you think this conversation will lead?

  • 12:33:39

    ALEXANDERWell, and to correct you, he said he opposes it as written...

  • 12:33:43


  • 12:33:43

    ALEXANDER...the way it is. So I think it's gonna take a lot of work pretty much through the next year. It's gonna take a lot of work, because we can't just cut those off, you know, high and dry. We do need the job training. We do need the educational component. We do need the job creation. We do need the drug rehabilitation. So we need all of those of components before it can work. This starts the conversation, but I'm willing to work at this legislation, because it's needed.

  • 12:34:14

    NNAMDIDonna Pavetti, there are something called the TANF Emergency Fund. Could you give us some examples of how states are using the money offered to them by that fund and which state you think are using that money effectively?

  • 12:34:28

    PAVETTIJust a correction, there was a TANF Emergency Fund.

  • 12:34:30


  • 12:34:31

    PAVETTIThe TANF Emergency Fund was created as a part of the Stimulus Act to provide states with additional resources to be able to deal with increased need during the recession. And that program expired on Sept. 30.

  • 12:34:43

    NNAMDISure did.

  • 12:34:43

    PAVETTIAnd one of the really sort of exciting things that happened as a part of that is that a number of states are actually 39 plus states plus the District of Columbia that used those resources to create subsidized job opportunities for people. So basically what it was doing was to create jobs where jobs were not available, so that people had opportunities to work, build those skills and sometimes to move into those jobs permanently. The District of Columbia used those funds primarily for summer youth employment, but there are a lot of states that used this specifically for their welfare recipients and also for their individuals, who are on the unemployment insurance.

  • 12:35:17

    NNAMDIAny specific examples? Any states?

  • 12:35:20

    PAVETTIWell, one example is Illinois. Illinois created a program where they provided 30,000 people with jobs, paying $10 an hour. They had a number of employers who agreed to participate and provide opportunities for people. When that fund ended on Sept. 30, they decided to continue that program for two months, hoping that when Congress came back they would extend it. But those jobs are slated to end at the end of November, at this point.

  • 12:35:45

    NNAMDI20,000 jobs, they were able to create even though their initial target was 12,000 jobs?

  • 12:35:49

    PAVETTIYes. Exactly.

  • 12:35:51

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here's Jay-Z in Northwest Washington. Jay-Z, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Jay-Z. Are you there? Well, Jay-Z apparently...

  • 12:36:03

    JAY-ZOh, yes. I'm here.

  • 12:36:03

    NNAMDIOh, you are?

  • 12:36:04

    JAY-ZNo. I'm here.

  • 12:36:05

    NNAMDIGo right ahead, Jay-Z.

  • 12:36:06

    JAY-ZOkay. Call me cynical, but it's really interesting that Marion Barry and Ms. Alexander, councilmembers of the two poorest and blackest wards in the city, are the ones cheerleading the call to end benefits that would mostly affect -- that would -- you know, statistically affect her residents, her constituents and her ward. And that the -- some of the people who are opposing these are some of the white council people. So it's really interesting. Ms. Alexander, did you poll your constituents to ask them whether they wanted this kind of action as the primary response to this whole issue of budgeting? And are you in favor of cutting off welfare benefits for corporate entities and developers in this city, such as the tax abatement that you voted for, $8.6 million tax abatement to Donatelli for property on Georgia Avenue and these other tax abatements that are being propose to -- or from (unintelligible)

  • 12:37:23

    NNAMDIStay on the line for a second, Jay-Z...

  • 12:37:25

    ALEXANDERThat's correct.

  • 12:37:25 Yvette Alexander answers your questions.

  • 12:37:27

    ALEXANDERThank you. And let me go first with the tax abatement question. Yeah, I'm gonna continue to support those because they're for, you know, affordable housing in our community. So people do need a place to live. So I will continue to support those such tax abatements to make it affordable. But let me just speak on some of the residents in Ward 7 that I've talked to and even those who received public assistance. They have overwhelmingly supported this legislation because they want to become self-sufficient. So, yes, I have polled my residents. And let me just add, Kojo, that there are still some benefits that, you know, TANF persons will receive. They'll receive, still, housing benefits. They'll still receive food stamp benefits. They'll still receive Medicaid benefits. So it's not a cut and dry thing. And I think, yes, everyone, Jay-Z, wants to be self-sufficient and independent.

  • 12:38:30

    NNAMDIJay-Z, what do you think about what I characterized, maybe mischaracterized, as the carrot and stick approach. And that as if on the one hand, the city in collaboration with whoever is able to provide job training opportunities and on the other hand, the stick approach. If you don't take advantage of those job training opportunities or access to jobs, you get cut off after five years. Jay-Z?

  • 12:38:54

    JAY-ZI think that's -- yeah. I think that's to a (word?) degree unnecessary. What you want to do to provide a means to people to be able to become self-sustaining, but -- as some people have stated. When you structurally create a situation where people are not being educated, and when you structurally create a situation where you are denying people the capacity to live in affordable housing, get food, get transportation that is affordable and reliable, then basically what you're trying to do -- this is just apparently another element of driving people out, particularly black people, out of the city. And the fact that most of these people who are in those programs are children, who are totally dependent on their parental...

  • 12:39:42

    NNAMDIWell, when you say driving them out of the city, Jay-Z...

  • 12:39:44

    JAY-ZWell, you see if you cut the...

  • 12:39:47

    NNAMDIJay-Z, if you're saying you're driving them out of the city, when the District of Columbia reportedly has better benefits than any other jurisdiction, where would we be driving them to?

  • 12:39:59

    JAY-ZRight. If you cut the benefits, then people who are the low poverty -- as already stated, these benefits don't put people above the poverty level. It's basically hanging on (unintelligible)...

  • 12:40:11

    NNAMDILet me ask Donna Pavetti, how do you deal with the structural issues that Jay-Z has raised?

  • 12:40:15

    PAVETTIThe structural issues in terms of opportunities -- I think that we're lucky in some ways that the city is on a path to provide much better opportunities to deal with some of those structural issues. So I think education reform is critical because I think it will mean fewer people are really coming out of our schools, unable to qualify for jobs. I think the early childhood piece that is on the table I think is also critical because it provides that early start, and it doesn't have kids starting school being behind and have a cycle of failure starting very early on. I think the other opportunity that we really need to look at is the creation of the community college as part of the University of District of Columbia, because I think that that really provides an opportunity for people to get trained and to take advantage of better opportunities that will allow them to become self-sufficient. So I think we need to think about all those pieces in tandem to really be able to create better opportunities, not only people -- for individuals who are on TANF, but also for all people in city, and again make them all work together.

  • 12:41:16

    NNAMDIJay-Z, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will also be talking with Peter Edelman, chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission. He served as an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850 or shoot us an e-mail to or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:43:26

    NNAMDIWe're having a conversation on rethinking welfare with Yvette Alexander, who's a member of the D.C. city council. She's a Democrat who represents Ward 7. And LaDonna Pavetti is director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. By the way, it is our understanding that the jury in the case of the trial that was just mentioned on the news has found Mr. Guandique guilty as charged as in the murder of -- help me.

  • 12:43:55

    ALEXANDERChandra Levy.

  • 12:43:56

    NNAMDIChandra Levy, in the murder of Chandra Levy. He has been found guilty as charged. Obviously, I have not been paying enough attention to this case. Joining us now by telephone is Peter Edelman. He is chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He served as an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration. Peter Edelman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:44:17

    PROF. PETER EDELMANMy pleasure, Kojo.

  • 12:44:18

    NNAMDIAs we mentioned, you're a veteran of the Clinton administration, but you wrote last December that this recent economic downturn has demonstrated that not only did President Clinton end welfare as we know it, but he left us unprepared for the hard times we're going through right now. Why do you say that?

  • 12:44:35

    EDELMANWelfare has become largely irrelevant in many states in the country. Now, that's not true here in the District, which is perhaps the reason why the current debate has developed here. But in this recession, the number of people getting food stamps has gone up to well over 40 million, which is helpful as far as it goes, but helpful. And the number of people on welfare -- you'd think that welfare would be something that would be there for people at least when economic times are tough -- has barely changed, and it's only slightly over 4 million people in the whole country. And so, whatever one's doubts were about 1996 welfare law before that, it's pretty clear that it's not a useful tool -- it's proven to be not a useful tool in this tough time.

  • 12:45:34

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you resigned from the Clinton administration over this very issue.

  • 12:45:39

    EDELMANI did because I thought that there were too many people on welfare in our country in the early 90s, but -- and that welfare needed -- needed reform to really help people get off and get jobs. And in a time when jobs are available, our welfare policy should really be to work with people to work with people, to get them the education, the training and to get them placed in work and get them off welfare. In a recession, we need to have a safety net and -- because jobs just aren't available. And so what I thought about what was done in 1996 is that there was far too much push to it, pushing people off, and not nearly enough attention to actually helping people to find and to be able to keep jobs.

  • 12:46:33

    NNAMDIYou say a lot of states were very successful in getting people off the welfare rolls, but that did not necessarily translate into them having the ability to live above the poverty line. What are the most important lessons the District of Columbia can take out of that nationwide experience as it ponders how to move forward on welfare?

  • 12:46:52

    EDELMANWell, I heard Donna speaking while waiting to join the conversation. And of course everything that she said in terms of our schools and pre-K and community colleges for the longer term is exactly right. In the shorter term, with Vince Gray becoming mayor, what we really need to do is to work much, much harder on getting our education and training services, the Department of Employment Services and the efforts within the Department of Human Services to help people find work.

  • 12:47:29

    EDELMANNow, right now, work isn't available, so we do need to have welfare as a safety net to help people. We're -- compared to other parts of the country, we're actually doing a better job on that. But we've done a very, very unsatisfactory job in our community of helping people who are already of working age but aren't working, to get successfully into the labor force. We really, really have to work much harder on that.

  • 12:47:56

    NNAMDIPeter Edelman, how has this conversation changed, if at all, since Federal Welfare Reform was enacted, oh, a little over 14 years ago?

  • 12:48:04

    EDELMANWell, the first thing is, Kojo, that -- which I think is good, is that, for the most part around the country, people had been satisfied, I think maybe a little bit too easily, but satisfied. And the debate -- I'm talking about the voters generally -- and the debate has not been so virulent and negative. That's constructive.

  • 12:48:30

    EDELMANSecondly, we've had some learning -- and Donna Pavetti has done a lot of this research -- around the country of places where, as in Maine, for example, and in Minnesota, parts of California, a few other places, where we've really worked with people on an individual basis and figured out who has a disabled child at home, an elderly relative, shouldn't necessarily be pushed out there to work, and others to help them find jobs, get the child care they need and other supports so they succeed. And of course, we also have the need to get them out of poverty, which means that if the wage isn't high enough, then they need other help, and we have the earned income tax credit. But with -- but the aim should be to end poverty in this country.

  • 12:49:20

    NNAMDIWhat do you think about the proposal for a cap in the District of Columbia if all of the things that Donna and Yvette Alexander and you say are, in fact, put in place?

  • 12:49:31

    EDELMANI don't think you need to have a specific cap of a time period if you're running a system that's working properly, because if you really put in place all of the efforts that are needed to be supportive of people who maybe haven't had much work experience -- remember, to a certain extent, I mean there are plenty of people who are on welfare, who are there for a more temporary period of time. But those who have been on for a longer time represent the fact that all the things that Donna talked about in terms of education and community college and the rest of it were not there for these folks when they were growing up. And so we're picking up the pieces and we're saying, all right, we're going to help you now get into the labor force. That's what we need to be doing.

  • 12:50:25

    NNAMDIPeter Edelman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:50:27

    EDELMANMy pleasure.

  • 12:50:27

    NNAMDIPeter Edelman is chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission. He's a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He served as an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration. We're still taking your calls at 800-433-88-50. WAMU 88.5 News, always seeking to help out an uninformed host, tells me that Ingmar Guandique has, in fact, been found guilty of two counts, both charges, of first degree murder in the 2001 killing of Chandra Levy. More to come later from WAMU 88.5 News.

  • 12:51:02

    NNAMDIWe're still having our conversation with Yvette Alexander and LaDonna Pavetti about rethinking welfare. Yvette Alexander, after listening to Peter Edelman, what is it that you have seen in your own ward, in your own community that says, look, even if we're putting these things in place to give people access, I think we need to have a five-year cap? What are you seeing that causes you to come to that conclusion?

  • 12:51:25

    ALEXANDERWell, there's one thing, Kojo, and we haven't talked about this yet, is the rise in teen pregnancy. And that's the one thing. And I wanna take a proactive measure because far too many of our young ladies are seeing this as a way that, you know, they can get on their feet with it. And a lot of times they drop out of school, you know, when they have a baby, 14, 15 years old, and they start receiving public assistance. And I see a rise in our teen pregnancy, and I see a rise in our teens obtaining these benefits. So we need to stop that, and that's something I'm really adamant about.

  • 12:52:03

    NNAMDIIn other words -- let me put it as bluntly as possible -- a lot of young women in this community knows -- communities know if I can get a child, I can get a check.

  • 12:52:12


  • 12:52:13

    NNAMDIWe got a question on Twitter from Squirrel325 , who says, "Wouldn't a TANF exemption for minors who have kids provide something of a disincentive for them to finish school or pursue work?"

  • 12:52:24

    ALEXANDERRight. And I'm glad I just spoke on that. Yeah, it would, but if it happens, we have to, you know, we have to directly treat that problem. You know, we have to deal with that if it happens.

  • 12:52:35

    NNAMDIYou got to think about the children.

  • 12:52:36

    ALEXANDERYeah. But I want to do all we can in our schools with health education, sex education and out -- you know, reaching out to our young people that please do not start a family until you're ready to take care of yourself.

  • 12:52:50

    NNAMDII say that because, frankly, that you used to be the conversation in my neighborhood. If I can get a child, I can get a check.

  • 12:52:55

    ALEXANDERIt still is.

  • 12:52:55

    NNAMDII don't know how many times I've heard that.

  • 12:52:57

    ALEXANDERIt still is.

  • 12:52:57

    NNAMDIHere is Elizabeth on Capitol Hill in Washington. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:02

    ELIZABETHHi. I know that the United States is not the only country that's looking at the question of the chronically unemployed. It's a big discussion right now in the United Kingdom. And there, they have put in effect a proposal that all those who are receiving welfare or on the dole, as they say, who are able, would be required to do 20 to 30 hours a week of community service in exchange for the welfare check.

  • 12:53:29

    NNAMDIYeah. You got to find child care, though, for people who have young children.

  • 12:53:32

    ELIZABETHRight. But the question -- there's two reasons why they're doing it. One, it's giving those people an opportunity to develop some job skills, some recent unemployment history that would go towards some perhaps getting an entry-level job. But also in families with chronic generational unemployment, it's demonstrating that if you are getting money in your house, it's because you get up and go and do something in order to bring it in. I wonder if this is an idea that anyone would consider here.

  • 12:54:01

    NNAMDIYvette Alexander.

  • 12:54:02

    ALEXANDERI would definitely consider that, and for children as well, getting involved in your child's school.

  • 12:54:07

    NNAMDIDonna Pavetti.

  • 12:54:08

    PAVETTII think the record on unpaid work experience is actually quite grim that it really -- there is no evidence that shows that it does lead to permanent employment, and it is quite costly to be able to both do the management and to provide the child care. So I think that -- well, it may be one of a multiple set of strategies. I think it can't be the only strategy. And I think there is a lot to be learned from state's recent experience with doing subsidized jobs, where people are paid for those jobs and go to work.

  • 12:54:39

    PAVETTIAnd again, using the Illinois example, Illinois was able to provide jobs for 30,000 people, but they had 60,000 people who apply. So it was not an issue of them trying to get enough people to actually be able to fill those positions. It was more demand than they had -- they were able to cover those needs. So again, I think that we -- there are places that have done work experience -- (word?) paid work experience. I don't think that there's a good record of it leading to where we'd like things to go. And it's not that we should completely write it off, but I don't think it can be the only thing that we do.

  • 12:55:08

    NNAMDIHere's Julie in Portsmouth, Va. Julie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:12

    JULIEHi. Yes. I wanna know -- let me start with back in May, I had to go on welfare. Are you there?

  • 12:55:23

    NNAMDIYes, yes, in Virginia. Correct.

  • 12:55:24

    JULIEOkay. Yes, Portsmouth, Va. And I have a 9-year-old daughter, and me and my daughter had to move into my parents' house and actually pay my parents' divided rent to live there. And I was unemployed, I'm going through a divorce, I've been a stay-home mom for, you know, 10 years. And I went down to the Portsmouth Social Service office, and they're very, very uneducated. I got a very big runaround. I applied in May and I didn't even receive any benefit till July. And the TANF money they gave me for me and my daughter was 248 a month. And...

  • 12:56:15

    NNAMDIThat's not a lot. It's way below the poverty line. But, Julie, we're running out of time. Very quickly.

  • 12:56:19


  • 12:56:19

    NNAMDIDid they talk to you...

  • 12:56:20

    JULIEVery quickly, my question is...

  • 12:56:22

    NNAMDIWell, my question first. Did they talk to you at all about job training?

  • 12:56:24

    JULIE...with housing, having no housing. There's -- what are they gonna do for the Hampton Roads area where there is a waiting list of one year to get into housing?

  • 12:56:39

    NNAMDINo, well, we cannot discuss that on this broadcast in terms of the Hampton Roads area and housing. But my question to you was, did the social services in Portsmouth talk to you at all about any job training, access to job, job opportunities, anything like that?

  • 12:56:53


  • 12:56:54

    NNAMDINo conversation about that at all?

  • 12:56:57


  • 12:56:57

    NNAMDIAt least not yet. And I'm afraid we're just about out of time, Julie. It seems to me that, LaDonna Pavetti, one of the things that Yvette Alexander and others are talking about in the District is that if somebody like Julie shows up to our Social Security services here, that within minutes, hours or most weeks, they should be talking to her about job training and access to job opportunities.

  • 12:57:21

    PAVETTIThey should, and it has happened in many places. And I think that we have to be realistic, though, about one of the issues that the District has faced, as have others, is there is a limit of capacity. And so what happens is you can't serve every person who walks in the door with the employment services they need, and it's ever harder in this kind of economic environment. So I think it's -- what you don't wanna do is to promise something that you can't deliver. And so I think it is a conversation that needs to have two sides to it that both provides opportunities and makes those opportunities real.

  • 12:57:52

    NNAMDIIt's on Yvette Alexander, her colleagues on the D.C. City Council, and Mayor-elect Vincent Gray to, well, deliver. Yvette Alexander is a member of the D.C. Council. She's a Democrat who represents Ward 7. Thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 12:58:06

    ALEXANDERThank you, Kojo. We're gonna work on this.

  • 12:58:08

    NNAMDILaDonna Pavetti is the director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:15

    PAVETTIThank you.

  • 12:58:16

    NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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