Two photos stood behind Gov. Paul LePage at last week’s welfare reform announcement, one of a mother and two children, the other of a young man in sunglasses smoking a cigarette. The photos were under the heading “Who’s the priority?” and were meant to portray the two sides of welfare, one trying hard to get ahead for the sake of her family, the other leeching off the system.
It is a mockup the governor has used before, as he argues that the state needs to better control how welfare recipients spend their benefits. LePage is right to bring attention to how we address poverty in Maine, but in targeting the specter of the cigarette-smoking layabout, his policies actually harm the vast majority of welfare recipients who are looking sincerely for a way out.
So rather than damning the poor with inaccurate caricatures, LePage should focus his attention on improving the programs that transition Mainers off welfare. The debate about welfare reform should be about how to give recipients the education, skills and support they need to improve their lives, not how to limit the little assistance they now get, leaving them to drown in their own circumstances.
Maine can start by lobbying for changes in the federal rules that come attached to funding through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program most commonly associated with welfare and the target of LePage’s reform proposals.
The measures, known as the work participation rate, require beneficiaries to participate in a certain amount of “work-related” activities. If a state doesn’t maintain a high enough rate, it faces fines.
Those fines entered into debate in Maine last week, when both LePage and Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, cited Maine’s work participation rate in their proposal to eliminate the effective Parents as Scholars program.
Parents as Scholars helps parents receiving TANF access post-secondary education. That activity, however, is counted toward the participation rate for only 12 months, so someone seeking a two-year degree eventually will count against the state.
This points out a flaw in the system: States are measured and rewarded on the wrong criteria. TANF is meant to help push recipients toward self-sufficiency, but crucial activities, such as GED programs, job-skills training and job-search assistance, are limited or outright discouraged.
This flaw is well-documented by welfare reform advocates and state-level officials. In fact, the federal government itself has asked states to find creative ways to address the problem.
Maine should come up with its own suggestions, as part of a larger plan to make sure state-run social programs move people in the right direction.
A 2010 study showed that 97 percent of TANF recipients have had three or more jobs in the last five years. They are getting jobs but are unable to keep them, because their car breaks down or their kid gets sick. Or their limited education and training leads to the kind of entry-level, low-wage job that is transient in a difficult economy.
And for the few TANF recipients who reach the 60-month limit, disability and mental illness, for themselves or a family member, are often the reason. Few of them reach the limit having received the education or training they need to find work.
There are programs that address these issues, but they are not being used effectively. The Parents as Scholars program, despite its proven success, has filled only a small fraction of its alloted openings.
LePage hinted at the need for better training last week. He said, “We need to put our energies into educating people,” and he talked about his plan to put DHHS under the same roof with the Department of Labor, to take full advantage of job programs.
But then it was back to the cigarette-smoking bogeyman. Instead, we should think about the vast majority of TANF recipients who more closely resemble the woman and her two children.