Crossing the Welfare Cliff: The Sudden Loss of Benefits for D.C. Residents

A few months ago, Christie Gardner’s apartment was wrecked by a fire. Now she’s living with the damage left by the fire, smoke, water, and the firemen who helped save her apartment. “It’s a total disaster right now,” says Gardner. “They broke up all my bookshelves, my computer.” To make matters worse, her electricity has been turned off, so she has to get by with just a few battery-operated lamps and the waning hours of daylight.
But Gardner is no stranger to suffering. The six decade-plus resident of Washington, D.C., was forced to quit her job as a certified nursing assistant after she suffered from a workplace injury that left her needing a hip replacement. Still, Gardner remains positive, always reminding herself and those around her: “It will get better. God is good.”
Gardner now spends her time advocating for her community, volunteering for several nonprofit organizations, attending doctor appointments—and fighting the D.C. government for welfare benefits.
Like many in D.C. and throughout the country, Gardner has fallen over a welfare benefit cliff—it’s what happens when someone suddenly loses benefits because a slight increase in income pushes them over the welfare program’s income-eligibility threshold.
Since 2020, Gardner has seen some of her welfare benefits decline roughly 90 percent despite still being on disability. Among other changes, since 2020 her monthly SNAP benefits have decreased from almost $300 to just $30. Despite her best efforts, she has been unable to determine the precise cause of these reductions, though she says she thinks it could be due to her becoming eligible for and receiving Medicaid.
She turned to a local nonprofit, Bread for the City, that aims to empower low-income Washingtonians to escape poverty by providing food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services. The organization also advocates for their clients by soliciting the D.C. government for needed reforms and by helping them understand what welfare programs they qualify for, how to apply, and how to avoid falling over their benefit cliffs.
The bureaucracy surrounding welfare programs makes them very expensive, inefficient, and confusing to navigate—costing taxpayers a lot of money while failing to provide meaningful help to those that are struggling economically.
Brittany Pope, a licensed graduate social worker, is Bread for the City’s economic security supervisor and oversees the organization’s involvement in government-funded projects like Thrive East of the River and DC CARES. These programs intend to help low-income community members who have been denied unemployment benefits, pandemic relief aid, and federal stimulus payments through cash transfers paired with legal, social, and economic counseling services.
As Pope explains, these cash transfer programs are difficult to administer because the programs might disqualify participants from being eligible for benefits if the government decides to count the cash transfer payments as earned income.
That could be what happened to Gardner when she took part in the Thrive East of the River program in 2020. Gardner was accepted into the Thrive program because of her economic status and her disability stemming from her workplace injury. It is possible her inclusion in this cash transfer program threw her over some benefit cliffs, but her decrease in welfare benefits also coincided with her beginning to receive Medicaid. After her participation in the program concluded, she was no better off financially.
The federal government, states, and some localities all administer welfare programs. Complicating the situation, every welfare program has different income-eligibility limits which can vary by family size, age, and disability. Pope describes counseling clients as “thread[ing] the needle in between all of the different programs’ income and asset limits.” While welfare offices staff social workers, lawyers, and other support employees to enroll participants and explain programs to them, the offices are often too understaffed and the employees too overworked to manage their ever-growing caseloads.
Both Gardner and Pope mentioned the difficulties they have had with reaching the D.C. Department of Human Services (DC DHS) and other D.C. government offices’ staff. Receiving adequate guidance was even more difficult, if not impossible.
DC DHS did not respond to requests for comment, but it has not entirely ignored this problem. The agency launched the Career Mobility Action Plan (Career MAP) as a pilot program in December 2022 to help combat the effects of welfare benefit cliffs and encourage families to pursue employment. Families who were a part of the Family Re-Housing Stabilization Program were eligible to join a lottery to participate in Career MAP. Six hundred families were chosen at random to receive up to five years of housing, career, and familial support from D.C. DHS. Along with rental assistance, participating families are given up to $10,000 a year to bridge the gap if they lose benefits as a result of their income increasing from work.
“It’s a baby step,” Pope says of the program. “It’s kind of like a workaround, like a bandaid, basically. But it doesn’t fix the root of the issue.” Career MAP acknowledges benefit cliffs and provides families with money to overcome them.
But Pope is right: These programs fail to fix the broken policies that enable benefit cliffs to form in the first place. Spending more taxpayer money on more government programs rarely solves anything, especially when the government bakes disincentives to work and economic mobility into the programs. As policy scholar Michael Tanner has noted, government policies that create welfare benefit cliffs “act as poverty traps, deterring work effort or putting a low ceiling on how much those families can increase their standard of living.” This can be true of welfare programs in general, which disincentivize work and compete with better-targeted and better-administered private charity and community support programs.
Even though she is a victim of welfare benefit cliffs, Gardner is not eligible to participate in the Career MAP program because she was not in the Family Re-Housing Stabilization Program. She currently lives in a (now burnt out) Inclusionary Zoning Program apartment and has been on the DC Housing Authority’s public housing waitlist since 2013—the year the list was closed due to the overwhelming volume of applicants.
Teetering on the edge of benefit cliffs is the norm. Falling over happens to too many. Rescues are the luck of the draw. In the end, the D.C. government’s welfare programs are largely ineffective: in trying to help, they instead make things worse.