Today, more than 16 percent of Maine children live in poverty, and our unemployment rate stands at 8.4 percent. Keeping families working and giving them the supports they need to provide for their children are two of the best weapons we have to defend against some of the long-term consequences of this recession.
At no time has this been more evident than during the past year and half as families across the country and our state continue to weather one of the worst economic recessions of our time.
Last week, the Senate had the opportunity to provide some of these supports through its jobs bill, but failed to move the legislation forward. Apparently, increasing emphasis on the federal budget deficit in both the House and Senate has stymied efforts to provide assistance to families and fiscal relief to states — even though the economy still shows all the signs of a recession, and we are far from a solid recovery.
Among the most important provisions in the bill for families with children is an extension of unemployment insurance benefits through November. Since Memorial Day, many unemployed workers already have lost benefits, and without the extension an estimated 30,000 Mainers will lose benefits over the next six months.
For state budgets, the most important issue is the Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP, increase. This increase is helping states weather a steep decline in revenues without eliminating benefits for thousands of children and families.
Recovery Act legislation passed in 2009 extended the FMAP increases through only the end of this year, when the length and depth of the current recession were not yet clear. Since most states, including Maine, operate on a July-June fiscal year, failing to provide this assistance means that federal Medicaid payments to the states would be reduced halfway through the current budget cycle.
Without the FMAP extension, Maine faces a budget shortfall of at least $85 million, forcing the governor and Legislature to come up with additional cuts to a state budget that already has been cut 13 percent below spending levels of two years ago. These cuts will result in more lost jobs, higher unemployment and reduced access to health care for some of Maine’s most vulnerable children and families.
Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have been consistent past supporters of these critical programs as important job creation and economic recovery tools. They were two of the three Republicans in Congress who voted for the original American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package enacted in February 2009. And, they have been consistent supporters of the FMAP increase, unemployment benefits and other state fiscal assistance during past economic recessions and, as recently as this past March, voted for these programs.
Despite this past support, last Thursday both senators voted against the bill. These measures are clearly short-term temporary assistance that will not increase medium- or long-term deficits. The Congressional Budget Office has identified temporary FMAP assistance as one of the most effective measures for creating jobs, and Congress traditionally has provided FMAP funds to states in response to economic downturns without revenue offsets for this very reason.
If we are serious about economic recovery for all our families and want to stave off predicted increases in child poverty that may result from the recession, we have to act now. And, we have to meet these children where they live — in families with parents struggling to get a job, to keep a job, simply to make ends meet. Federal unemployment assistance and enhanced FMAP funds will make the difference for thousands of Maine workers, their children and the long-term health of our state.
This short-term emergency spending is not at the core of our federal deficit problem and should not be held hostage by the politics of the day. Sens. Snowe and Collins have been leaders on these issues for Maine families, and we call on them to lead again.
Dean Crocker is the president and CEO of the Maine Children’s Alliance.