Putting Families First-A Model for Sustainable Self-Sufficiency: The District of Columbia's Department of Human Services TANF Redesign Initiative Shows Philosophy in Practice

By Berns, David A.; Long, Trey | Policy & Practice, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Putting Families First-A Model for Sustainable Self-Sufficiency: The District of Columbia's Department of Human Services TANF Redesign Initiative Shows Philosophy in Practice


Berns, David A., Long, Trey, Policy & Practice


In today's strained economic climate, it's easy to focus on what we don't have. Human service agencies don't have enough funding or staff. Some individuals and families don't have jobs, child care or even basic human necessities. It's no wonder that we dwell on our shortages and prepare our budget requests based on what we do not have.

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Legislators and funders themselves look at the deficiencies, especially after hearing so often that they are pouring millions down a black hole. What are they getting for their investment and why should they put more money into a failing system?

We human service agencies need to do a better job describing what we have accomplished with our resources. The resources so generously given to us have made a difference, and more can be done with incremental increases. We can make better use of both existing and proposed resources by looking at the entire system and how we can work most efficiently and effectively. For example, what if we truly put the family at the center of our service delivery model--factoring in all the other supports that can help propel them on the road to self-sufficiency? This is not limited to governmental resources. Families have assets and resources that we are just beginning to tap through strength - based approaches.

Communities are resilient and thriving despite economic downturns. So, instead of focusing entirely on scarcity, we need to look at the abundance of resources in human services: compassionate caseworkers; dedicated volunteers; and family members who are experts in their own unique circumstances.

Strengthening the Circle of Support

If we put families at the center, we must move our agencies to some other place in the model. The "Circles of Support" model depicted in Figure 1 shows that agencies, such as welfare offices, are required only when more natural or community-based approaches are not meeting the need. The choice then becomes more apparent. Do we solve the problem through long-term governmental intervention, or do we concentrate on bolstering family and community supports that prevent the need for government dependency?

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When we concentrate on "services" that families need, we perpetuate an agency - centered approach. Services are things that are given to families. They are often based on the assumption that people need our specific package of government - funded guidance to solve their problems. Under this new model, services are just part of an array of supports that result in better outcomes.

This philosophy is different in four important ways:

* It changes the focus from spending money on services and starts investing in better outcomes.

* It ensures that the family or individual is part of the planning process, working with the agency to develop and participate in a plan that will work for them.

* It improves other systems rather than automatically defaulting to costly eligibility programs that don't always result in the best possible outcomes.

* It views each layer of support as a "prevention program" for the layer that follows. Layers closest to the family must be strengthened and reinforced to deliver the best results. This process saves money because the interventions in the outer rings are considerably more expensive.

Rethinking--and Redesigning--TANF in the District of Columbia

In Washington, D.C., we have been very responsive to meeting the minimal needs of people to survive, but not very good at addressing the long-term issues that allow people to move to self-sufficiency. We have spent huge amounts of federal and local money to maintain people, and little to lift them up.

Now we are taking action to change this legacy. The District of Columbia Department of Human Services (DHS) has begun a deliberate and systematic redesign of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to better assist families in making the climb to self-sufficiency. …

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