AUGUSTA — A pair of bills aimed at lessening the impact of the so-called “welfare cliff” easily cleared the Legislature Tuesday with unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate.

The bills, called the Invest in Tomorrow package, are aimed at keeping families that are transitioning from welfare to work from losing health, financial and education benefits until they are earning enough to fully support themselves.

One of the measures raises the income limits for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, while the other allows those enrolled in state-funded education and job-training programs to gradually earn more money before losing all assistance. The bills are sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Assistant House Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle.

The term welfare cliff refers to the total loss of benefits that can occur when someone achieves even a relatively low level of income. Supporters of the bills say losing benefits because of a relatively minor increase in income is a disincentive for people seeking a higher-paying job or to gain skills that allow them to earn more.

Gideon, in her testimony to lawmakers in support of one of the bills, said a family of three must have a gross income of less than $12,276 to qualify for TANF. Under the bill approved Tuesday, the same family of three would qualify for TANF if its income was up to 88 percent of the federal poverty line, or $18,870 per year.

Stewart’s bill increases the earnings limit for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, while allowing a TANF recipient to apply the time spent studying for a General Equivalency Diploma toward work and education requirements.

“We have the chance to make real, positive change in the lives of Mainers experiencing poverty – for families who are struggling and only want better, brighter futures for themselves and their kids,” Gideon said in a prepared statement. “If we make the investments that are called for in these bills, we’re going to see the dividends pay off in a big way for our state’s economy today and in the years to come.”

A coalition of organizations that advocate for the poor in Maine praised the votes Tuesday, urging Maine Gov. Janet Mills to sign the bills into law.

“Passing these bills is the first big step to advance the Invest in Tomorrow policy agenda to increase economic security and opportunity for Maine kids and families, which reflects the thinking of community members, stakeholders and experts all over the state,” said Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice. “The bipartisan effort we’ve seen to make a real difference for Maine families in our state is inspiring. It shows that poverty is not a partisan issue, it’s something we all care about.”

Dana Connors, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which also backed the bill package as part of the coalition, said the legislation will help Maine employers by increasing the workforce and equipping workers with more skills.

“With the passage of these bills, it’s great to know that the state will not only be doing the right things to help Maine families and young children succeed, we’ll also be making an investment in the future of our workforce,” Connors said, also in a prepared statement.

Stewart, in his testimony to the Legislature, said the measures are meant to encourage people to seek work.

“These hard-working individuals have aspirations for themselves and their families that far exceed their current situation and status,” Stewart said. “They simply need a targeted and coordinated hand-up, along with some good advice from experts in this area in order to make it happen.”

The two measures, funded with $11 million a year from federal block grants, now head to Mills’ desk.

 

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