As Maine implements strategies to grow and strengthen the state’s workforce, it must continue to address benefit cliffs, a systemic issue that keeps many Maine people from fully participating in the labor market.

Benefit cliffs are formed when an increase in income triggers reduced eligibility for government programs that help families secure child care, health care, food, housing and other essentials. When the reduction in benefits is greater than the increase in income, families experience a net loss of resources – a financial landslide that can occur multiple times on the path out of poverty. The threat of falling down such cliffs can be a major barrier to entering or advancing in the workforce.

The story of Maine State Parent Ambassador Sara Wing, of Waterville, poignantly illustrates the difficult situations these cliffs put families in. A single mother to two girls, Sara works full time but uses public programs to cover essential needs where her income falls short, including health care. When she looked into taking an extra part-time job in the mental health field, the additional income made the family budget look good – until she discovered that it would make them ineligible for the state’s health care program.

“If we lost our MaineCare, it would have been devastating,” Sara said, deciding that the best choice for her family was not to pursue the second job. “As a result, the field of mental health lost out on a worker. Mental health cannot afford to lose out on workers. The industry needs all of the help, support, and workers they can get.”

Sara’s right. In the field of mental health, and across many other industries, Maine doesn’t have enough workers to fill current demand, and its workforce is not growing fast enough to support future economic growth.

The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development’s recently updated economic development plan confirms that we need to step up efforts to grow the workforce. While the 2020 plan set a goal of adding 75,000 workers by 2029, Maine’s labor force has increased by only 13,000 so far. Maine’s labor participation rate of 59% has yet to return to prepandemic levels and is well under the national average.


This is not a new problem, nor one that is being ignored.

Leaders from across Maine have sounded the alarm for years and are working to address this critical issue. All hands are on deck right now – in the public and private sectors – to attract new workers to the state; advance skills training, educational attainment and credentialing for those already here; and address housing, child care and other structural needs that have hampered growth.

Addressing benefit cliffs is another critical piece of the puzzle. We won’t make progress in filling labor shortages as long as parents are forced to choose between taking a job or promotion and maintaining access to critical prescriptions for the children or losing their child care. When given such a choice, parents will ultimately put their children’s needs first. To help parents secure a brighter future for their families through employment, and to ensure they can fully add their talents to the state’s workforce, we need to remove these cliffs from the path of economic mobility.

Important work toward this goal is underway. A new report the John T. Gorman Foundation has co-released with the Administration for Children and Families Region 1 and other partners chronicles the steps Maine and other New England states have taken to mitigate and smooth benefits cliffs in recent years. These efforts include phasing out benefits more slowly as income increases; allowing more earned income to be retained in the transition to work; raising program eligibility limits; and giving families access to coaching and other tools to help them navigate the cliffs. In Maine, these changes have been made under two different governors and through the passage of bipartisan legislation.

While this progress is important, it should just be the start. Work to address benefit cliffs must continue – for the sake of Maine families and our state’s workforce.

Comments are no longer available on this story