Dee Clarke from Portland is single mother with three children and serious health issues. She wants to work, but for years her health was a barrier to holding down a good job. Like so many struggling families, Clarke needed to turn to the state for help.

Clarke was fortunate to get connected with the right vocational training and tools to help her obtain a job, while also getting temporary help that helped her overcome obstacles to finding and maintaining employment. For the past 14 years, she has held down a job and has been an advocate for changing the system to help women like her become independent.

Her children are successful and have good jobs of their own; one is a doctor.

Clarke’s story is an important one to help us understand how we can fix our anti-poverty programs to ensure that struggling families have a pathway out of poverty. 

Clarke received the job skills and training she needed, but most people who receive temporary help never have that opportunity. Last year, Democrats made it a priority to pass a law that would ensure struggling people, such as Clarke, who need temporary help, have the opportunity to get the skills, education and training they need to secure a good job.

The “Ticket to Work” law ensures that people who receive temporary help from the state go through an immediate and comprehensive assessment to identify and coordinate the training, education and tools they need to find long-term employment. After applicants come through the door, they are  assessed and connected with tools they need. This ensures they are ready to work and secure long term employment.

It’s the right route to reform for the state’s anti-poverty programs.

On Oct. 10, this newspaper published a column by Rep. Alex Willette of Mapleton, assistant minority leader of the Maine House, which asked if Maine Democrats will ever support any attempt to reform welfare.

The answer, of course, is yes, and we have.

The “Ticket to Work” reform law stands in stark contrast with the so-called “welfare reform” touted by Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies.

In the past year, the LePage administration adopted so-called reforms that cut off families of children with disabilities or individuals with disabilities from the state’s program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.  

A study by Sandra Butler, University of Maine professor, shows that since the governor’s so-called “reforms” took effect, 70 percent of those who were removed from temporary help have had to rely on food banks; one in three has had utilities turned off; and one in five has been evicted from their homes.

 Is there anyone who believes this is truly welfare reform? It’s a failure when more families are homeless because of the policies governing our state’s anti-poverty programs.

Our goal must be to get more struggling families back on their feet again. Success of reform means making a program work better so more people are working again. We can’t just target and vilify struggling families when the real problem we face in our state is a poor economy.

In his column, Willette touts new bills that Republicans will introduce to make work search requirements a prerequisite for temporary assistance. It sounds great. If it worked, I’d be the first to support it. The fact is, however, that it is not real reform.

In other states where these laws have been implemented, the results are terrible.

Instead of putting people back to work, it just puts up barriers to getting much-needed help. There is no evidence that more people found work because of the work search requirements. More people turn to cities and towns for General Assistance or just end up hungry or homeless. In a state where one in five Maine children lives in poverty, we cannot turn our backs on their parents.

The Bangor Daily News editorial page called the bills ineffective and clearly election year politics: “They’re policy changes that might appeal to voters, but they don’t address the underlying causes that drive people to seek welfare assistance in the first place, and they don’t, on their own, set welfare recipients on a path toward financial independence.”

The goal of legislation to reform our public assistance program should not be to score political points.

Democrats support meaningful reform and economic growth measures that ensure a fair shot for those fighting to stay in the middle class and those trying to climb into it.

Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is the 101st speaker of the Maine House. Married with three children, Eves is serving his third term in the Legislature.

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