Maine is due for a serious conversation about welfare reform — not just an exchange of slogans but also a real give-and-take about the best ways to fight poverty, use public resources wisely and build our economy.

That’s why Gov. Paul LePage’s promise to introduce welfare reform bills for the upcoming legislative session is good news. We don’t endorse his proposed solutions, but the bills he’s said he will put forward should concentrate attention on real problems that deserve attention. The legislative process, with public hearings, work sessions, debate and on-the-record votes, is the best way to address them. And if either side is more interested in political grandstanding than in working to improve people’s lives, the process is the best way to expose that.

This is a real opportunity if lawmakers are willing to seize it. It’s not true, as the governor said in a recent radio address, that liberals and progressives are happy with the status quo and think the system as it exists “is just fine.”

No one is happy with Maine’s deepening poverty, shrinking middle class and government inefficiency. The real disagreements are not about goals, but about the best way to achieve them.

crack down on fraud

The pair of bills LePage said he will submit were first proposed this year by Republican House Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, but rejected by the Democratic-controlled Legislative Council.

No text has been drafted, but according to the governor’s statements, the bills would require applicants for cash assistance to show that they have looked for work before they ask for help and would crack down on the abuse of state benefits, which the governor says is widespread.

While these ideas will sound reasonable to most Mainers, the governor should articulate what problems he’s trying to solve. Is the goal to cut the state budget? Is it to protect taxpayers from fraud? Is it to get people now on assistance into the workforce? Those are all good goals, but the burden of proof will be on LePage and Fredette as the proponents of the legislation to show how their proposed solutions would make a difference.

First, it’s important to make sure that everyone is talking about the same thing.

The word “welfare” has become a catch-all term for so many different programs it has lost its common meaning. We often are reminded about the $3.4 billion budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center’s analysis that found about one-third of Maine’s 1.3 million people receive some kind of assistance.

But the welfare reform bills suggested by the governor are small in scope. They would affect only the 7,700 households that receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

TANF households represent a small segment of the approximately 200,000 Mainers who live in poverty, most of whom have jobs but don’t earn enough to sustain themselves. Some of them get help paying for housing and food and health care.

Most of the DHHS budget, $2.4 billion, pays for MaineCare (or Medicaid), the federal and state program that provides health care for low-income and people with disabilities. Like all health care programs — both public and private — its costs have skyrocketed as the cost of health care has grown faster than the rate of inflation.

only a fraction

The bills put forward by LePage and Fredette concern only the $22 million part of the budget that goes for TANF. It’s not a small amount of money, but Maine could eliminate TANF completely — which no one is suggesting — and it would cut state spending by less than 1 percent. Marginally reducing TANF rolls would save only a fraction of that.

But cutting spending is not the only reason to consider reforming these programs.

The governor repeatedly brings up the issue of fraud and the feeling of many taxpayers that dishonest people are taking advantage of their generosity. This is a serious concern that should be addressed, and the governor should be prepared to back up his charges with more than anecdotes.

In his radio address, the governor talked about the misuse of electronic benefit cards, the debit cards the state uses to distribute TANF and nutrition assistance benefits.

He said the cards have been used in casinos and to purchase illegal drugs, alcohol and lottery tickets. He said EBT cards issued in Maine have been used in Las Vegas and Florida, suggesting that the people who were issued them are taking advantage of the system.

Without any details, it is impossible to judge the extent of the problem. Since much of this activity is already illegal, it is important that the Legislature investigate these charges and see if there are holes in the enforcement system that could be filled. It is impossible for these programs to succeed if the public believes that its money is being wasted.

breaking the cycle

Limiting fraud, however, is not a reform of the system. Cracking down on cheats is important, but would affect only a minority of people in poverty and would not get at any of the core problems.

LePage, Fredette and others argue that welfare recipients would be better off with a job than a monthly check, and few Mainers would disagree. Work and independence are preferable to being trapped in a cycle of poverty with no exit. Breaking that cycle should be the goal of any reform effort, and the governor could expect to find allies at either end of the political spectrum if that is his goal.

But it’s not just a lack of intiative that keeps TANF recipients from working. These are, for the most part, families with dependent children headed by single women. Nearly one-quarter of TANF families are victims of domestic violence. Two-thirds of these families have at least one member with a disability. They disproportonately live in the parts of the state with the highest unemployment rates, where jobs are scarce.

Full employment is the right goal, but just telling people to look for a job is not enough. The state should work to make sure that there are jobs to be found and that the people looking for them have the skills they need to be productive. It must make sure that there are sufficient training and education opportunities and a child-care system that lets parents go to work knowing their children are safe.

The whole state has an interest in the welfare-to-work transition. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation issued a report this year titled “Making Maine Work,” which warned that our aging population and shrinking workforce will spell disaster for our economy if we don’t take steps to grow.

can’t afford waste

Some of that growth could come from people moving to the state, but the report found that much will have to come from making full use of the people who are already here. The group set goals of finding work for people who are not now part of the workforce by 2020, including 12,000 senior citizens, 10,000 people with disabilities and 6,000 young people who lack a high school diploma or job history. Their point is that Maine can’t afford to waste anyone, and the business community would be a powerful partner in creating the kinds of supports that would help Maine tap into this unused labor pool.

At times, but not in these bills, the governor has talked about letting people keep their benefits longer as they transition to work. The question for the governor should be: If he wants to achieve the long-term goals of growing the workforce and promoting independence, is he willing to spend more money in the short term to achieve it? Because if not, we are not really talking about meaningful reform.

And we should be. It’s time to have a serious, evidence-based discussion about what causes poverty and the best way to eliminate it. If the governor is ready to have that debate, he has done us all a service by introducing these bills.

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