Benefits from Temporary Aid to Needy Families — what most people think of when they think of welfare — are loaded onto EBT cards carried by adults. But the main targets of the program are children, who need the stability and nourishment the assistance helps provide.

And it’s not just the children who benefit. Society as a whole is advanced when the next generation is cared for sufficiently.

So what happens when that support is taken away?

Unfortunately, Maine may find out. According to this year’s Kids Count report, the number of Maine children receiving TANF benefits declined by nearly 60 percent from 2011 to 2014, with no clear, concurrent drop in the number of poor children.

It’s hard to say how the loss of benefits is affecting the thousands of children whose families are trying to get by on poverty-level incomes.

But there are indications that it is harmful, and that the policies toward welfare are putting kids behind, some of them for the entire lives.

POVERTY STAYS CONSTANT

The drop in Maine children receiving TANF — from 23,922 in December 2011 to just 10,082 three years later — came as there was a much smaller decline in the child poverty rate.

At the same time, there was no significant drop in those receiving food stamps, and no change to the number of Maine children in low-income families. The percentage of students eligible for subsidized school lunches even increased slightly.

Instead, the drop in children on welfare can be attributed largely to the 60-month lifetime limit on benefits that was implemented in Maine in June 2012, along with a stricter sanction policy.

More than 1,500 families, and an estimated 2,700 children, lost benefits right away, and more have since.

The time limit was meant to force recipients into self-sufficiency. Most of those who lost benefits, however, had problems beyond the incentive to work hard.

Many had a disability, or a dependent with a disability. About 40 percent had not obtained a high school diploma.

Many were unaware they qualified for an extension. Some reported being discouraged from obtaining one.

And the idea that the time limit would nudge former recipients toward work?

Well, about 60 percent already were employed, at an average wage of $9 per hour, poverty wages for a single mother.

Overall, only 7 percent of those who lost benefits saw an eventual increase in wages and hours. Many were held back by their health, or the health of a dependent.

And while 75 percent said they needed more education, less than 18 percent had been through a training program.

All these circumstances illustrate how vulnerable people in poverty are to bureaucratic changes.

CHILDREN HARMED

It’s not hard to take an educated guess at how this plays out for the children.

First off, places like Preble Street, the Portland-based social service agency, report that they are dealing with more families. There are also significantly more children placed in care or custody of the state.

One factor in either or both could be the loss of benefits.

What we know for certain is that growing up in poverty stunts emotional and physical development in a way that can be difficult to overcome.

Poverty affects cognition and school performance during the crucial early childhood years. It increases the risk of mental disorders and antisocial behaviors, and harms the ability to deal with stress and make good decisions.

“Exposure to early life adversity should be considered no less toxic than exposure to lead, alcohol or cocaine, and, as such, it merits similar attention from public health authorities,” a researcher from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School said.

PREVENTION NECESSARY

For alcohol and illicit drugs, and tobacco and childhood diseases, significant public health investments have been made in prevention, and they are paying off.

According to the Kids Count report, fewer Maine teens are drinking, and the number of high school students who reported smoking cigarettes is down 48 percent in the last decade.

Just in the last year, a dedicated effort to increasing Maine’s childhood vaccination rate proved stunningly successful.

But we are not making the same preventative investments in children from low-income families.

As a result, their health and well-being will suffer from growing up in poverty just as much, if not more, than if they had contracted measles or developed a smoking habit.

It’s time to start treating poverty like the disease it is, and make sure children are inoculated against its harmful effects.