A better way to help people escape welfare

Maine Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves, D-North Berwick, speaks during a press conference delivering the Democratic response to Gov. Paul LePage's State of the State address Tuesday Feb. 5, 2013.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Maine Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves, D-North Berwick, speaks during a press conference delivering the Democratic response to Gov. Paul LePage's State of the State address Tuesday Feb. 5, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted May 17, 2013, at 12:30 p.m.

House Speaker Mark Eves’ “Ticket to Work” legislation, LD 1343, is a timely attempt to address the new sense of urgency a 60-month lifetime eligibility limit creates for Maine families who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The bill’s greatest value is that it recognizes that parents seeking public assistance are individuals with unique needs, not a static class of people. As Gov. Paul LePage continues to demonize and depersonalize “welfare,” Eves’ bill represents a humane, realistic step toward combating stigmatizing stereotypes that too often frame political debate about welfare reform.

The bill also provides a legislative framework to buttress the good work that the Office of Family Independence has done during the past year to broaden the scope of its evaluations beyond whether a TANF recipient is job-ready, to identify each person’s current condition and what can be done to address his or her immediate and long-term needs.

An amended version of the bill, which won endorsement from the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on May 9, calls for a comprehensive initial assessment of TANF recipients to determine whether conditions such as “physical or mental health impairments, learning disabilities, cognitive impairments or limitations” block that person’s path to independence. That aligns with a program shortcoming identified when the Office of Family Independence launched a fundamental review of its ASPIRE welfare-to-work program last year.

“We can’t really help people until we understand their strengths, weaknesses and the barriers they face,” said Dale Denno, director of the Office of Family Independence. “On the basis of that assessment, we can work right away to find resources that person needs to get on a path to independence.”

That early start is critical because the 60-month lifetime eligibility cap that took effect last year raises the stakes for TANF families and the state. It’s instructive to frame the situation in human rather than policy terms, as Dee Clarke of Portland did in written testimony submitted for a May 3 public hearing on Eves’ bill.

“I needed TANF in the first place not just because I was a single parent, but because I was struggling with some very serious and long-standing mental health problems that eventually led to my receiving SSI,” she wrote. “Had my condition been appropriately assessed earlier by TANF, and had I gotten help earlier in applying for SSI, my family would have been better off and the state would have saved critical dollars that could have been used to help others.”

A deeper understanding fostered by whole-person assessments also will help focus each TANF recipient’s independence plan on finding ways in which various elements of state government, not just ASPIRE program workers, can collaborate with recipients to formulate a realistic plan to achieve independence within 60 months. Remedies could include remedial education, medical treatment, help applying for federal disability benefits, enrollment in a job certification program or employment training, according to Denno.

To improve state government’s ability to provide those services, representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education and Department of Labor have been working since last year to put in place a synchronized support system that makes it easier for the appropriate state agencies to help TANF recipients navigate from the assessment phase to independence, Denno said.

In practice, that means relying on the Department of Education to fill training gaps and the Department of Labor to expand worksite placement options. It also means training ASPIRE workers, also a component of Eves’ bill, so they can expedite cooperation among agencies.

“My vision is that people will experience an integrated state approach that makes them feel like they’re getting the support they need,” Denno said.

Eves’ bill demonstrates a legislative commitment to that approach. We believe it should pass.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/05/17/opinion/editorials/a-better-way-to-help-people-escape-welfare/ printed on December 18, 2014