AUGUSTA — Mainers seeking cash welfare benefits would have to prove that they already had been looking for a job if a proposal is approved by the Legislature.

The bill, sponsored by House minority leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, has counterparts in states where lawmakers and budget hawks have adopted new — and politically popular — ways to crack down on welfare spending . In many states, the pre-approval job search requirement has led to a dramatic decrease in caseloads for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, critics of the initiative believe the measures are designed to block welfare applicants from receiving needed benefits by making the process harder.

Welfare recipients now must show that they’re looking for a job to continue receiving benefits. Fredette’s bill would require applicants to show that they had applied for at least three jobs before even qualifying for cash assistance.

“This is a requirement that’s common in other states, and I think most Mainers would agree that we shouldn’t be giving out welfare to able-bodied people who haven’t even looked for a job yet,” Fredette said in a statement.

LaDonna Pavetti, with the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said such proposals are part of an attack on the poor.

“It assumes that people seeking assistance aren’t looking for work or don’t want to work, and we know that isn’t the case,” said Pavetti, adding that TANF is designed to stabilize poor families so that they can find work.

There were 21,670 temporary assistance cases in August, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Among them were 13,338 children. The average benefit for all individuals receiving TANF was about $149 a month.

Nineteen states have enacted laws similar to Fredette’s proposal, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania passed such a law in 2012 under the direction of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. In September, the state’s Department of Public Welfare reported a spike in denials for welfare cash benefits, from a decadeslong average of about 50 percent to a high of 81 percent in February. In 2013, 8 out of 10 applicants were denied benefits, according to a review by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A similar trend has occurred in other states that adopted upfront job-search laws or tightened the eligibility standards. In 2004, Georgia beefed up its upfront job search requirement. TANF caseloads plummeted along with a corresponding increase in application denials, according to a 2007 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2000, Georgia’s application approval rate for TANF was 40 percent. By 2011, it was 18.2 percent.

The report found no evidence that those denied TANF benefits in Georgia had found work.

According to the report, “Since the implementation of the initiative, there has been no net increase in the number of families meeting the federal work requirements.”

According to federal data, national state agencies approved 54.8 percent of TANF applications in 2000. By 2011, the approval rate declined to 44.1 percent amid the adoption of upfront work search laws.

Pavetti, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said denying benefits upfront also deprived applicants of state-funded evaluations designed to help welfare recipients find work. Adults receiving TANF now must participate in job search activities, while also meeting with state officials who assist them with job placement.

Fredette’s bill may have little chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a statement Wednesday that he wouldn’t support Fredette’s bill.

“The reality is that 1 in 5 children in Maine live in poverty,” Eves said. “It’s easy for politicians to vilify families like these that are struggling to get on their feet again, simply to score political points. That’s all these bills are, and I won’t be supporting them.”

Fredette’s proposal aligns with a Republican push to overhaul the state’s welfare system and furthers a party narrative that has proven popular with a public that remains skeptical about welfare recipients’ efforts to find work.

Fredette echoed that sentiment during prepared remarks made at the State House on Wednesday. He said Mainers are willing to help those in need, but “many people believe that all too often, there are those who treat a helping hand as a way of life, generation after generation, to the point where hard work is discouraged and personal accountability is forgotten.”

He added, “I believe Maine taxpayers are feeling that they are being taken advantage of. You see it when you talk to them on the street, going door to door, and we see it when we gather the results of our constituent surveys.”

Judith Levine, a sociologist professor at Temple University, said upfront work policies are popular because states can trim their welfare rolls, and politically expedient because they “tap into long-held public notions of deservingness” that have existed throughout the domestic welfare policy debate.

“Throughout that history, the idea of the ‘deserving poor’ has been tied largely to being employed,” Levine said. “Pre-approval work search policies create one more hurdle in a series of bureaucratic hurdles that needy families face in trying to obtain TANF benefits.”

Levine noted that the barriers are effective, citing data that showed unemployment had gone up by 88 percent nationally during the recession, but TANF caseload rose by 16 percent.

Fredette’s bill will accompany another proposal to tighten rules about current work search requirements for TANF recipients. Both bills will be considered during the legislative session that begins in January.

Earlier this year, the Legislature defeated a LePage administration proposal that would have allowed the state Department of Health and Human Services to seek a waiver from the federal government to ban the use of food stamps to buy soft drinks and junk food. Similar bills were reviewed by eight state legislatures in 2012. None passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The federal government has never approved a waiver.

Recently, Gov. Paul LePage has lauded his administration’s crackdown on welfare fraud. The Department of Health and Human Services fraud unit increased the number of fraud cases referred to the Office of Attorney General for prosecution. The referrals increased from 10 cases in 2010 to 45 in 2012. Despite the effort, the number of successful prosecutions has increased more gradually, from eight in 2010, to 10 in 2011, to 15 in 2012.

The amount of restitution that courts have ordered increased from $92,339 in 2010 to $104,341 in 2012.

The fraud crackdown has been aided by a $700,000 annual investment by Maine taxpayers. The additional funding was approved in 2012 to hire more fraud investigators.

Steve Mistler — 791-6345

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler

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