It’s no wonder Gov. Paul LePage featured Jennifer Cloukey in his inaugural address. Ms. Cloukey’s reliance on and path toward independence from welfare programs, the governor said, should be a model for the state. The governor wants state assistance no longer to be of indefinite duration. Specifically, he wants TANF — Temporary Aid to Needy Families — to last no more than five years.
Ms. Cloukey, the single mother of four, is a student in a nursing school. An instructor encouraged her to attend a chamber of commerce function at which candidate LePage was speaking, and she became a supporter. Speaking to WCSH-TV after the speech, she said, “I remember thinking welfare was going to be a way of life for me. I remember the moment where I realized it didn’t have to be. And everybody can have that. It is a temporary thing.”
But can everyone have a limited time on assistance? Ms. Cloukey is obviously bright, pleasant-looking, articulate and her children appeared to be well cared for and well-behaved at the inaugural event. She is due great credit for working to complete an educational program, and wise to choose one preparing her for a growing employment field. But what about others who receive assistance?
Here are some hypothetical recipients who may never be free of shelter, income or food support: The 61-year-old woman with an IQ of 85 who was born with a physical disability that makes it difficult for her to walk. The 25-year-old man who was sexually abused for years as a child and suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder, making it difficult for him to work with others. The 48-year-old woman whose poor diet and lack of dental care have left her without any teeth, making it hard for her to land a job in the public eye.
We may feel better about denying benefits to those who have created their hardship — the woman who has five children by five men; the single father whose cognitive functions are poor due to years of drug abuse. But should children suffer because of their parents’ mistakes?
Gov. LePage suggests that assistance programs create a dependency that is not good for either the individual or society. This is true to some degree. He also suggests there is large-scale fraud, or at least large-scale use of such programs by those who could otherwise support themselves. If the governor is expecting to save millions ferreting out these deadbeats, he will be shocked to find it is fool’s gold.
Furthermore, the long-term TANF recipient may be more myth than reality. Maine Equal Justice Partners reports that a survey it conducted with the University of New England found that the median recipient used TANF for 1.5 years. And 88 percent of those who use the program for five years or more are disabled or caring for disabled family members.
And the real kicker — Ms. Cloukey likely will spend more time on the program than most. If anything, this makes the case that these programs work.
Gov. LePage is right to want to revamp assistance programs. But if his ultimate goal is to save money and create contributing residents, he may conclude that reconfiguring the spending so assistance is married to training and education funds is more effective than setting an alarm clock on benefits.