CONTRIBUTORS

Why state assistance for needy families needs time limits

Posted March 04, 2013, at 11:47 a.m.

In 2011, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services imposed a legislatively approved 60-month lifetime limit for benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. This rule is aligned with the federal government’s requirements, and implementing it has allowed Maine the opportunity to reinvest money saved into key areas, including workforce development and child care subsidies.

Without question, our greatest moral imperative is to give individuals who have the capacity to work the very best support and educational opportunity possible. That is where our money and our energy must be spent.

As the director of the Office for Family Independence, I have received many comments about the implementation of the 60-month TANF limit, and nearly all of those I have spoken with have favored the change. Citizens, state employees, legislators and our own eligibility staff have shared their support.

The program’s name, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, reinforces the benefit’s short-term intent. Five years, 60 months — or, to be even more precise, 1,825 days — is how the word “temporary” is defined by statute. For most, five years is a long time, and it is the consensus opinion that a time limit is necessary, not only to manage costs, but to fuel the motivation for TANF recipients to get the education and skills they need to return to gainful employment.

There are some landmark changes underway to support recipients’ move toward independence, including the development of a highly focused and active partnership between the Maine Department of Labor, the Maine Department of Education and DHHS. The effort serves as an example of state agencies working together with a shared goal in mind: to give every recipient the skills and resources they need to return to work.

Our vision is that every TANF recipient entering the workforce retraining program should be given a comprehensive vocational assessment to identify both strengths and barriers to employment. We’ve developed a common form for assessment, and, in coordination with our partners, we will develop an individualized plan for each TANF recipient that identifies specific educational, work and volunteer activities. Our goal is to create a seamless process, so recipients do not feel like they are dealing with separate bureaucracies. With some Career Centers in close proximity to DHHS offices, we have the opportunity to make stronger connections for both staff and recipients.

We are also developing a plan to reinforce our worksite placement activities to make sure that we are able to provide participants with meaningful opportunities to develop the skills and experiences that will make them attractive candidates for Maine employers.

It is important for TANF recipients to establish achievable goals and expectations on the way to self sufficiency. On the basis of our years of experience with these programs, we believe that the vast majority of TANF recipients want to have a plan for independence. We are dedicating some of the money saved by establishing a 60-month limit to remove some barriers to success. We will provide additional child care funding for low-income families who have transitioned off TANF and increase housing support for TANF families whose housing costs exceed 75 percent of their income.

We are aware that the cap on benefits creates urgency with our TANF recipients, which is appropriate. Current law recognizes that some individuals may need to extend their benefits beyond 60 months, and we are committed to administering those extensions consistently within the letter and spirit of the law.

Together with our partners, we must use resources effectively to break the generational cycle of poverty. With the support of the governor and the Legislature, and with more coordinated effort, we will help Maine’s TANF families achieve the best social service program in the world: a job.

Dale Denno is director of the Maine Office for Family Independence.

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