BANGOR – Republican Gov. Paul LePage has spent more than $1.7 million in federal welfare dollars on after-school programs instead of cash assistance at a time when fewer poor Maine families are receiving such benefits.

More than a dozen nonprofit organizations received funding this year from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant, the Bangor Daily News reported.

More than 80 percent of the funds were awarded without using a competitive bidding process and the Department of Health and Human Services said it is part of a push to fund programs outside of southern Maine.

Since 2015, Maine has asked such after-school programs to show how they help prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage two-parent families. Such goals are outlined under federal law that let states use temporary assistance grants with few restrictions.

The number of Maine families with children receiving cash assistance has fallen from nearly 12,800 in 2012 to 4,200 in December. Critics say Maine is diverting money from cash assistance for low-income families with children.

“They’re trying to reduce the caseload rolls and then use a fraction of the money to do something noble sounding,” said Samuel Hammond, poverty and welfare policy analyst at Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank Niskanen Center.

DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer said that after-school programming helps improve academic performance and reduce risky behaviors.

“These programs meet the goals of TANF and, more importantly, they keep kids off the streets – safe and engaged in positive behaviors,” she said.

Fair Haven Camps, in the rural Waldo County town of Brooks, runners a Christian overnight camp in the summer and in the fall led an outdoor activities and financial literacy program for 17 middle-school students.

A 1996 federal law allows states to issue public funds to religious organizations as long as the funds don’t cover “inherently religious activities.”

Westbrook’s My Place Teen Center is receiving $129,000 a year in funding for its youth leadership academy, said President and CEO Donna Dwyer.

“If we do our job, we reduce the lines at the TANF office, and these people have a future that is productive and they have a skill set and they do not need government assistance,” Dwyer said, referring to the teens participating in My Place Teen Center programs.

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