A mother recently told me about how she was able to turn her life around. She participated in Drug Court for 18 months and graduated with flying colors, but she felt hopeless and depressed with no idea of how she was going to do to provide for her daughters.

Through the ASPIRE program, the woman acquired the tools and help she needed to become a functioning, working member of society and a role model for her children.

That is how welfare programs are supposed to work.

Gov. Paul LePage recently put a comprehensive new welfare reform bill, L.D. 1375, before the state Legislature to build on past reforms to increase the employment focus and to further improve the integrity of the system. It is up to our state representatives and senators to pass this bill and keep the positive change coming.

In his 1935 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt said, “Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

The governor’s reforms, particularly to the TANF program, are saving state taxpayers millions of dollars per year. However, the road to reform is about more than numbers on a spreadsheet. LePage is pursuing this path because he understands fundamentally that we must change the welfare culture in Maine. For too long, our famous work ethic and individualism have been eroded by a destructive undercurrent of dependency and entitlement among too many of our able-bodied workforce.

A new collaborative effort by the state departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education has resulted in 2,079 TANF recipients receiving vocational assessments in the past year, with 856 being placed in work or internship opportunities. We support a pathway to employment, not a sentence to a lifetime of poverty

The changes we are implementing at DHHS are not only designed to curb the waste and abuse of taxpayer benefits, but also to transition our programs from being a way of life for generations of Mainers to a temporary hand up, coupled with an expectation of hard work and eventual employment and financial independence.

I cannot tell you how many businesspeople LePage and I speak with on a regular basis who lament the attitude of entitlement among many who have come to rely on these programs. It is difficult to hear the frustration of many employers when their jobs go unfilled. The decades of defining success by the number of people enrolled in these welfare programs has sapped one of Maine’s greatest assets — its labor pool.

This spring, we take another step toward reversing that trend.

The governor’s welfare reform bill, which received its public hearing last week and is sponsored by Sen. President Michael Thibodeau R-Winterport, contains several elements that were rejected by the majority Democratic Legislature last year.

Those include an up-front work search requirement — we want able-bodied adults to apply for at least three jobs before they can receive benefits — and the elimination of several exceptions to the federal requirement that TANF recipients participate in the ASPIRE work preparedness program.

The bill would prohibit the use of TANF funds on alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and bail. And they include a ban on the out-of-state use of Maine TANF funds.

Additional measures new to this bill include heightened penalties for violating welfare rules and requirements, and the alignment of the Alternative Aid welfare program with new TANF rules, a step designed to prevent people exhausting the 60-month TANF limit from transitioning onto Alternative Aid instead.

When I speak with hardworking people who have graduated from our welfare-to-work initiative and see their newfound happiness and confidence, I see the possibilities for countless others in a system that strives toward employment and expects accountability. And I see the possibilities for Maine’s economy.

And when I speak with the many hardworking Mainers who are frustrated by the abuses of the system that they witness, it is clear that we must continue to advance common-sense reforms designed to both help those in need become self-sufficient and to protect against fraud and abuse in programs designed to help vulnerable families with basic necessities.

Together, we can help our state make the transition from welfare to work, and from poverty to prosperity.

Mary Mayhew is the commissioner of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

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