AUGUSTA — The LePage administration unveiled a proposal Tuesday to address the so-called “welfare cliff” that discourages some Mainers from working or accepting better-paying jobs for fear of abruptly losing welfare benefits.

Reducing Maine’s “welfare cliff” is one of the few welfare reform proposals that enjoy significant bipartisan support among lawmakers and among interest groups often on opposite sides of debates over public assistance. Republican Gov. Paul LePage released his bill on the same day lawmakers considered a Democrat-sponsored bill seeking to remove the disincentives for some welfare recipients to earn more money, whether by finding employment, working more hours or taking a higher-paying job.

While the governor said he prefers his administration’s plan, he also noted that “both Democrats and Republicans agree and see an opportunity to improve the system.”

“I’m very confident,” said LePage, who has often blasted Democrats for thwarting his administration’s welfare reforms. “It’s unusual when you have both parties look at the same idea, the same concept, so hopefully this can get through in some fashion.”

Rep. Drew Gattine, the Westbrook Democrat sponsoring a welfare cliff bill, said he was pleased to see areas of common ground on the issue.

“What that shows is that people who are traditionally not in agreement about these issues have recognized that this is a problem that needs to be solved,” Gattine said.

Both LePage’s and Gattine’s bills would gradually reduce the cutoff – the so-called “cliff” – for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Currently, a single parent with two children loses $174 in monthly TANF benefits once the parent earns $1 more than the cutoff of $1,023 per month, or $12,276 per year. At that income level, the family is still below the federal poverty level.

The two bills contain key differences, however.

LePage’s bill, L.D. 1402, would provide an exemption – officially called an “income disregard” – for 100 percent of a full-time worker’s gross income for the first two months of employment, thereby allowing the worker to continue receiving the full TANF benefit he or she had received prior to working. The “disregard” percentage would decline to 75 percent for the next four months and then to 50 percent for each consecutive month.

Part-time workers who put in at least 20 hours a week would only be eligible for a 100 percent exemption or disregard during the first month, followed by 75 percent through the first six months and 50 percent for each consecutive month. Mainers who work less than 20 hours would not be eligible for an exemption.

LePage also proposed increasing the number of months workers can qualify for transportation assistance benefits and earmarks an additional $500,000 to a program that helps lower-income families with financial literacy and “healthy savings habits.”

“This is really a hand up, not a handout,” LePage said.

Gattine’s bill, L.D. 1268, also includes a 100 percent “income disregard” for the first two months of employment in order to help the recipient transition into the workforce followed by lesser exemptions after the second month. But unlike LePage’s bill, Gattine’s does not set a minimum number of hours a person must work to qualify for the income exemption.

Additionally, Gattine’s bill would also extend child care assistance for low-income families and would require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to provide “navigator services” to help educate TANF recipients about policies as they transition from welfare to work.

Gattine’s bill was endorsed Tuesday by several progressive groups, including Maine Equal Justice Partners, an organization that provides legal assistance and advocacy to low-income Mainers.

The Rev. Jill Saxby, president of the board at Maine Equal Justice Partners, said government has “wasted enough time in the useless exercise of shaming and blaming” welfare recipients rather than focus on ways to move people out of poverty.

“L.D. 1268 makes it easier for people to transition from welfare to work by gradually reducing benefits as families become more stable,” Saxby said at a press conference prior to the committee hearing on several welfare reform bills, including Gattine’s. “And it improves access to child care and transportation so more people can be available for work and can get to work.”

Thea Day, who works as a social services director for a nonprofit, said she personally faced the welfare cliff as a single mother of a child with autism and health challenges. When she was in college, Day said she depended on assistance to cover her family’s food and housing needs but was faced with going over “the cliff” when she had a job opportunity.

“That $50 a month would have meant the loss of the one chance I had to move my family out of poverty,” Day said. “No family should have to make a choice like that.”

The LePage administration testified against Gattine’s bill in the Health and Human Services Committee in part because of the lack of minimum work hours to qualify for the TANF income exemptions. Additionally, the administration opposed another provision of Gattine’s bill to eliminate a clause that would make changes in eligibility standards.

“Eliminating this eligibility requirement would expand the TANF benefit to an estimated 1,800 cases, where both parents are present in the home, and where both are non-disabled and able to work,” the administration said in testimony to the committee. “We are against this expansion of welfare to able-bodied adults.”

 


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