Understanding the welfare system — with facts

Posted Jan. 28, 2011, at 5:09 p.m.

Recently I have heard people voicing frustration with Maine’s welfare system. There have been calls for reform from most corners of the political spectrum. The rhetoric is heated, highly charged and looks to capitalize on the uncertainty of the economy and the strains and stress too many Maine families must overcome to make ends meet.

But if Maine is serious about improving its public assistance programs, the conventional wisdom that has developed during the year of political campaigns must give way to the facts. We can’t reform what we don’t understand.

About a year ago, my colleagues and I began an in-depth project to better understand Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. When people talk about welfare, TANF and General Assistance (which is administered at the local level with state support) are most likely what they’re talking about.

But very few people actually understand how the TANF program works, who receives assistance and how the program really compares to other states in New England. Anecdotes and stereotypes often drive the conversation.

Working with professor Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin at the University of New England for almost a year, we have developed a comprehensive examination of TANF in Maine. We surveyed more than 6,000 families who have received help from the program and have constructed one of the most detailed and accurate portraits of the program ever compiled. It goes beyond the talking points and looks in the faces of families in Maine who most need assistance.

More than 90 percent of TANF families are headed by women raising young children on their own. Many of these children are very young, as the median age of children is younger than 2 years. And a typical household is a mother with two kids. Many of these young families are headed by a mother who has been left to raise children on her own. Only 12 percent receive child support regularly from the absent parent. About a quarter of the parents surveyed reported they had been the victim of domestic violence and abuse.

Despite the challenges of finding affordable child care, having access to transportation and limited education, most of these women are hard workers. Ninety-seven percent reported having work experience, with the average parent having held three jobs in the last five years. Unfortunately, the wages they are paid are low, on av-erage just $8.46 per hour.

What’s often lost in discussions about TANF is who actually receives help from the program. More than 25,000 children depend on the program as a lifeline. Without it, more than 80 percent of these families wouldn’t be able to afford a place to live. Without help, these young families, and their children, would be on the streets. They’d be left to fend for themselves in an economy that’s been unkind to even the most educated and mobile.

While the mythology suggests that assistance programs create a lifestyle of dependence, our research shows that the median amount of time a family receives TANF is just 18 months. Strikingly, of those families who exceed five years of assistance, almost 90 percent include a family member with a disability. But even then, the amount of assistance is small. The woman with two children who receives assistance gets, at a maximum, just $485 a month, the lowest rate in New England, and the amount hasn’t increased in 10 years.

The real face of TANF is a baby, younger than 2, with a mother who is on her own to defend her family from a world with little opportunity and plenty of struggles. The help that family gets is the difference between a home and a homeless shelter.

There’s no doubt that we can improve the way we help these families, that we can find a better way to give these children a chance to break through the walls of poverty. But we’ll never make things better if we don’t understand the program for what it really is, and what it isn’t.

Sandra Butler is a professor of social work at the University of Maine.

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