The goal of any anti-poverty program should be getting people out of poverty, and reforms of those programs should result in people moving toward self-sufficiency.
A package of welfare reform bills introduced by Gov. Paul LePage on Monday would fail that test. The four “tough love” bills would, at best, have little effect on poverty in Maine and, at worst, create hardship for the children and people with disabilities who the programs are designed to protect.
The proof? The state’s track record of the last three years shows that cutting off people’s benefits does not move them into the workforce. It has strained local General Assistance programs. It has caused families to lose their homes. It has increased the poverty rate for children in Maine (while it is dropping elsewhere) and has forced some children to be taken into foster care when their families became homeless.
The state should look for ways to improve its anti-poverty programs to make them more efficient and more effective, but this group of bills would not accomplish that.
The bills hit themes that will be familiar to people who have followed the governor’s re-election campaign. They fall into two categories: bills that limit where and on what recipients can use cash benefits and bills that increase the requirements for applicants and recipients to look for work.
They may sound like good ideas at first, but they don’t hold up to even a little scrutiny.
All of these bills are related to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a mostly federally funded program administered by the state. It currently helps about 7,500 families, including 12,300 children. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $486. No other program distributes benefits as cash.
It involves about 1 percent of Maine households and doesn’t cover even a majority of children in poverty. As the name suggests, TANF is a short-term benefit for almost all its recipients, and those who stay on it longer than five years are likely to have a disability or be caring for a family member who is disabled. This is hardly the overgenerous and overused, out-of-control welfare program that its critics claim.
Banning people from spending the cash in their pockets on alcohol or cigarettes is most likely unenforceable and promotes the false notion that people on TANF have disposable income after paying rent and other bills. Prohibiting people from spending the money in other states penalizes families who live on the New Hampshire border, and those who are leaving the state to look for work. These bills, affecting a minority of a minority of the poor, will not do anything to help recipients become self-sufficient or ease the burden on taxpayers.
But the other group of bills could have an effect — in the wrong direction.
The governor proposes ending the “good cause” provision, under which TANF recipients can be excused from the work requirement if they fall in certain categories. The exceptions include being a victim of domestic violence or enrolled in the Parents as Scholars program, which helps people get the education they need to re-enter the workforce.
This is hardly a dodge or an easy way out, and the governor himself notes that education is the road out of poverty. These bills assume that TANF recipients could get jobs if they wanted them. Some could, perhaps, but others are on assistance because they can’t. Maine has recovered only 40 percent of the jobs lost in the Great Recession, and a whole host of reasons — from mental health to transportation — keep people from looking for the few jobs that are out there.
Helping recipients overcome barriers that keep them from finding work, such as the evaluation process for new TANF recipients created last year by the Legislature, is a much better way to move people into jobs than forcing them to go through the motions of applying for jobs that don’t exist or for which they are not qualified.
In introducing these bills, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, of Newport, called on his Democratic colleagues to “stop attacking our motives and listen to what we have to say.”
But this is not about motives, it’s about results. The history of LePage’s welfare reform so far is that it produces more homelessness, more hunger, more foster homes and more people living in poverty.
Whatever the motive, that’s the wrong direction for Maine.