Maine’s welfare system is broken.

What we need is accountability, the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars and a system that moves Mainers off the welfare rolls and into stable employment and independence. That’s what true welfare reform gives us.

Democrats have a plan to do those exact things. It’s called “Welfare that Works.”

It’s about transforming our system so that it works for all of us, whether we’re talking about taxpayers who are the ones paying for public assistance programs or the Mainers who need a hand up to help themselves. We have to stop nibbling around the edges of welfare reform and give the system a real overhaul. Welfare that Works does that without asking for any additional funds to be put into the system.

Welfare that Works fights fraud and abuse. One part addresses the use of taxpayer-funded benefits to purchase tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets and other inappropriate items. This is an issue Rep. McCabe has tackled repeatedly in the Legislature, with Rep. Beck’s support, because taxpayers have the right to expect that public benefits are used for their intended purposes like food, rent and heat. This is too important to be a political football. We need to get it done.

We attack this problem in a few ways. First, we immediately ban the use of dollars from the Temporary Assistance to Need Family program to purchase tobacco, liquor, gambling (including lotteries), bail, travel services, adult entertainment and tattoos. A system of increasing penalties for welfare recipients would deter inappropriate use on the front end. We’re also calling for a point-of-sale system that blocks the purchase of banned items at the cash register in the first place.

We also reduce the potential for abuse by taking cash out of the system. We know that most of these cash dollars go toward housing, so we take $5 million of cash out of the system and replace it with vouchers that go directly to landlords. By doing this, we make sure that families and kids have roofs over their heads and that taxpayer dollars are moving recipients toward stability. It’s also much easier to stop the inappropriate uses of cash before it happens than to chase it after the fact.

Welfare that Works puts the priority on jobs — jobs that get Mainers on their feet and help them stay there rather than falling back onto the welfare rolls.

Right now, we’ve got a one-size-fits-all approach that is ineffective. You know as well as we do that when you see “one-size-fits-all” it’s more likely than not that it’s a poor fit for nearly everyone who tries it on. Instead of a cookie-cutter approach, the system will take a hard look at each recipient’s situation and formulate a customized approach that will have a much better chance of success. We need a system that is more streamlined, more targeted and more effective.

Our plan also requires work for recipients — and helps them get a job if they can’t find one. Other states, both blue and red ones, have transitional job programs that make their welfare programs more successful. Without job skills and experience, what are the chances that a recipient — or the state’s welfare system — can succeed?

Welfare that Works recognizes that real reform requires substantive changes that provide real solutions. We have got to help Mainers help themselves up the economic ladder. Otherwise we’ll have more of what we’re seeing now: more Maine children living in extreme poverty, more hunger in Maine households and more Mainers without the security of health care coverage.

Our plan focuses on proven pathways to economic stability like education and job training, cracks down on potential fraud and abuse, and holds the welfare system itself accountable. Under our proposal, the state Department of Health and Human Services will set goals to reduce poverty and hunger and track how well it helps Mainers move out of poverty. It also creates a Citizen Oversight Board to give Maine people a say in how our welfare system works.

Accountability. Efficiency. Results.

This is a plan put forward by Democrats, but its goals are ones that we think all Mainers — regardless of political affiliation — can agree on. We are looking forward to working with you to make sure Maine has Welfare that Works.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is the House majority leader. He represents Skowhegan and part of Madison. Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, represents part of Waterville and part of Oakland.

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