WHAT’S SURPRISING — AND immensely encouraging — about the arguments about a pair of modest welfare reforms proposed by Republicans is that GOP leaders have continued to back their plan strongly, despite the sneers thrown their way from the left side of the aisle.

Mainers want people who genuinely need help to get it, but, like most Americans, they also want capable recipients to show some effort on their own behalf in return.

In the GOP’s view, that’s what two bills submitted for next year’s session by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport would accomplish.

And he got some support from an unexpected quarter this week, when the Lewiston Sun Journal praised one of his bills in an editorial that also took House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, to task for his opposition.

The first bill would create a “front-end” requirement that people seeking money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program must show, if they are deemed “job-ready” by the Department of Health and Human Services, that they have applied for at least three jobs before submitting a TANF application.

People with special circumstances, such as abused spouses or those physically incapable of work, would be exempt from that requirement.


As Fredette notes, 18 other states (including New York, New Jersey, Vermont and the District of Columbia, hardly bastions of conservatism) have such standards already.

TANF requires recipients to enroll in job-preparation programs, so the job-search requirement would not be a unique standard.

Indeed, it could help filter out those who need encouragement to find employment on their own before they become welfare clients, reducing the state’s burden.

The second bill merely closes up some loopholes in the current law dealing with vague definitions of exemption conditions that have permitted some people to evade the law’s requirements.

That actually will help recipients, because it helps ensure that everyone able to participate in training actually does so.

So, who could possibly object to such common-sense reforms, which are clearly intended to encourage able-bodied people to get back to work? (As has been noted, the name of the program is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.)


You get one guess: Liberal Democrats. Speaker Eves claimed, “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.”

But there’s no “vilification” here. Instead, it’s an attempt, in a restrained and sensible manner, to spend scarce taxpayer dollars in more disciplined and effective ways that have proved useful in many other states.

As the Sun Journal’s editorial put it, “While we will reserve final judgment until hearings are held and more details become available, (Fredette’s) ideas seem like reasonable responses to problems that have been identified by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.”

After noting that “requiring a healthy person who seeks benefits to have also sought a job is reasonable” (while adding that the second bill’s goals also might be accomplished by training case workers better), the paper concluded:

“But taxpayers clearly want more accountability in welfare programs. Fredette’s ideas seems more aimed at weeding out people who are looking for a hand-out rather than a hand up.”

As the GOP noted in a statement, “As a symbol of Republicans’ commitment to changing the culture at DHHS, the LePage administration changed the name of the agency that administers TANF, food stamps, and other benefits from the ‘Office of Integrated Access and Support’ to the ‘Office of Family Independence.'”


And Fredette added, “Our policies should be focused on achieving independence from welfare, not more and more access to it.”

That is, the measure of the success of a welfare program is not how many people it enrolls, but how many it can help find gainful employment.

It’s difficult to understand why a modest effort to hold welfare recipients to the same accountability that job-holding taxpayers must display every single day of their working lives is an imposition — let alone some sort of spurious “vilification.”

That kind of baseless, incendiary class-warfare rhetoric used to scare the GOP, but it doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Good.

UPDATE: A letter-writer took me to task this week for praising Dr. Michael Ciampi’s cash-only medical practice in last week’s column, saying the doctor’s policy is unfair to those who can’t pay.

The correspondent, however, ignored the portion of my column that said such practices would fit well within a system that gave everyone tax-favored health care savings accounts supplemented with catastrophic care insurance, with high-risk pools and other aid covering those who needed more assistance.

Why does letting people run their own lives so offend those who think Americans can’t accomplish anything without the guiding hand of the all-powerful state?

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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