City will suspend payments to those who defy requirements

District lawmakers on Tuesday voted to withhold benefits from welfare recipients who deliberately ignore programs designed to help them improve their lives, capping a rancorous debate but irking legislators who had hoped the city would impose tougher sanctions.

The council's 11-2 vote will allow the District to implement "full-family sanctions" against participants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program who repeatedly defy program requirements like completing job training programs.

Under a compromise agreement, the city will withhold welfare payments for up to one month. Mayor Vincent Gray's original plan called for the District to block compensation for up to three months before requiring the recipient to reapply for aid.

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who crafted the deal, described the changes as "a radical shift from where the D.C. government has been for years."

But at-large Councilman David Catania said the sanctions do not go far enough and argued the city's program "is as incomplete as it was when we started this journey of welfare reform."

"We expect nothing from our citizens," Catania said. "We expect no responsibility, and that's exactly what we get."

Only Council Chairman Phil Mendelson joined Catania in voting against the measure, while other lawmakers said the new curbs were an improvement.

"We have to stop going backwards," said Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander. "Full-family sanctions are tough, but it has to take place at some point."

And Alexander resisted charges from welfare advocates that the changes would unfairly harm children.

"I think children are really hurt when they grow up in a life of dependence, when they grow up in a world of poverty," Alexander said. "I think that's what's really hurting our children."

Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, who is one of the council's most ardent defenders of social programs and initially resisted the compromise, said he wanted the city government to improve its training programs for welfare recipients.

"I don't want people to be dependent. I want them to be self-sufficient, but the route to that is not punishment," Graham said. "The route to that is opening doors."

Graham's affirmative vote marked a dramatic turn of events from less than a week ago, when the veteran lawmaker employed an unusual parliamentary tactic to try to torpedo Wells' compromise.

At the time, Graham said he had seen "no evidence to suggest that full-family sanctions ensure compliance."