In 2011, at the urging of Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine Legislature dramatically changed the rules regarding the assistance low-income and working families can receive through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Recently, the governor has taken to touting the fact that the changes have reduced the number of people receiving help.
The facts, however, are nothing to brag about.
The changes in the TANF program, which is focused on helping families with young children, have done nothing to lift working people out of poverty or to help them improve their lives.
Instead, the changes have brought about new hardships, to the point of costing many families their homes.
Even worse, vital protections built into the changes in rules to protect families who face extraordinary circumstances — such as a child or family member with a disability — are being systematically ignored by some in the LePage administration.
The changes in TANF aren’t reform. They are a slow moving disaster that is hurting families, increasing homelessness and throwing new costs onto Maine’s towns and cities.
Sandra Butler, a professor of social work at the University of Maine with more than 20 years of experience in research related to low-income Maine families, surveyed and interviewed a number of families to determine the impact that these arbitrary changes in TANF have had on families who lost assistance.
The results are chilling.
Of the families who are no longer eligible for TANF, nearly 70 percent have been forced to rely on a food bank to feed their children. One in three has lost utility services, such as having their electricity cut off. One in five has been evicted from their homes.
Many of these families, by law, should still be eligible for TANF because they or someone in their care faces a work-limiting disability.
Nevertheless, despite the law, almost 40 percent of those who lost TANF reported a disability. Another 26 percent said that their child or another dependent had a disability. These are not people gaming the system. They are families struggling to get by against long odds.
Unfortunately, many were not made aware of the existence of extensions that would have allowed them to continue to receive TANF. Nearly 26 percent reported that they were actually discouraged by the Department of Health and Human Services from even applying for this protection.
The effect is to turn people away — even when they are still eligible. This may support the governor’s claim that he’s reduced the TANF roles, but at what price?
While many families that receive TANF benefits include someone who is working, the pay is often very low. For the families who have lost assistance, their median income is just $260 a month or $3,120 a year.
Contrary to the stereotype created by the governor, most TANF families are working hard to change their lives. They try to find work, to get an education, to become more employable, to care for their children often as single parents, and to overcome disabilities that limit their ability to work.
Cutting families off TANF doesn’t fight poverty, increase workforce participation or improve lives. It does just the opposite. It causes families – all with children – to suffer more with little hope of a pathway out.
The rhetoric of tough love and up-by-the bootstraps success might sound appealing, but the truth is that the changes in TANF are much less inspiring.
More children are homeless, with less to eat and no electricity or heat. Towns and cities are seeing their costs grow as families facing homelessness turn to them. Poverty has not decreased. In fact, the governor’s agenda has resulted in far more hardship than employment.
There are ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of programs such as TANF. But they require an understanding of the facts, recognition of what really causes poverty and a systematic approach to improvement.
That’s not what’s happening.
Faced with the greatest increase in economic inequality in a generation or more, instead of choosing a path that would enable people to secure a job with real economic security, LePage has chosen the path of “tough love,” which in reality punishes children for being born into low-income and working class families, It also undercuts any hope for such families to leave poverty behind.
That’s not reform. It’s a disgrace.
Christine Hastedt is the public policy director and co-founder of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid and advocacy organization that works to find solutions to poverty.