General Assistance is the last resort for many of Maine’s poorest. The state/municipal program gives a majority of its dollars to people in search of housing and also helps pay for food, clothing, heating oil, baby supplies, burials and medical help. General Assistance repeatedly has been the target of state cuts, but, as a new report makes clear, it’s difficult to cut an emergency safety net without shifting costs elsewhere.
Nevertheless, a legislatively mandated General Assistance Work Group has devised some good proposals to save the state money, such as by including certain benefits as income when determining eligibility. Another proposal would have towns ask a standard question about whether applicants are veterans and therefore eligible for military benefits.
The group issued its report Jan. 29 and it is being reviewed by the Health and Human Services Committee. More than savings, the group also put forward ideas for how to administer the aid more efficiently, such as by giving General Assistance administrators in municipalities access to the state’s electronic database to determine eligibility instead of requiring them to call.
During the last few years, Gov. Paul LePage has tried several times to cut or cap the state’s General Assistance reimbursements, which constitute about 0.3 percent of the state’s yearly budget. The state historically has paid about $10 million per year, while municipalities have contributed about $6 million.
As part of his most recent supplemental budget, LePage proposed to cap General Assistance, but the Appropriations Committee rejected the idea, and the full Legislature stood by the committee. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan had warned a cap could place more of a burden on municipalities to help people, and it would be “a tsunami that would swamp the state.”
That threat of shifting costs is real, as the work study group’s report made clear. For example, to cut General Assistance costs, four members supported extending benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program beyond the 60-month time limit in cases where job availability is unfavorable and individuals are not “job-ready.” But three group members opposed the idea, saying costs simply would be passed on to TANF from General Assistance.
In another case, the work group unanimously supported encouraging officials to ensure more eligible individuals are aware of the little-known Alternative Aid program, which helps families not on TANF resolve emergencies that prevent them from getting or keeping a job. An average of only 66 families per month used the program in 2012, though many more likely were eligible, according to the report. But though having more people on Alternative Aid could help take some of the strain off General Assistance, it doesn’t necessarily represent a savings, as it shifts costs.
The group — with representatives from local municipalities, welfare directors, the Maine State Housing Authority, veterans affairs, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and others — met its goal to find $500,000 in savings for the fiscal year ending June 30. But some proposals also could result in long-term savings, and there are more ideas to come.
For instance, the group unanimously supported a pilot program to move 40 chronically homeless individuals living long-term in Portland shelters — and relying on resources that include General Assistance — to permanent housing. The pilot likely will show the type of savings possible by having people live in permanent housing — decreasing costs to General Assistance and the Department of Health and Human Services, such as through less emergency room care.
It’s this kind of attention to underlying problems that is most needed. The overwhelming costs associated with General Assistance are housing-related; they constitute about 85 percent of expenditures. But the program is built to address short-term, immediate housing problems, not the needs of the chronically homeless. So the group proposed another good idea: Continue to examine whether to develop or expand resources and programs available, other than General Assistance, to help those who rely on homeless shelter services long-term.
There will continue to be questions about how best to care for those who need basic necessities, but this group’s report offers some realistic ideas for consideration. The proposals wouldn’t cut without reason but rather focus on cost effectiveness.