Maine GOP ‘welfare reform’ is for campaign trail, not major impact

Posted Oct. 09, 2013, at 11:56 a.m.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette is doing his part to ensure his party can carry the mantle of welfare reform into next year’s elections.

The Newport Republican last week proposed two bills aimed at reforming Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Maine’s primary welfare cash assistance program for low-income families.

One bill, he said, would institute an upfront work search requirement, so potential applicants would have to show they’ve applied for three or more jobs before they can be considered for assistance. The other would cut back on TANF administrators’ latitude to grant exceptions to the requirement that beneficiaries participate in a work search program.

“The purpose of these bills is to help ensure that our welfare programs are focused on moving people from welfare to work, and not the other way around,” Fredette said in a statement announcing the legislation.

The goal, of course, is laudable. But we think the bills are unlikely to have a major effect.

The legislation and the rollout, instead, fit an evolving pattern that has seen Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans, as they gear up for the 2014 elections, applaud any change made to the state’s welfare programs since 2010 as a noteworthy achievement that is chipping away at Maine’s Democrat-induced culture of welfare dependency.

In a September news release, LePage touted a series of “successful welfare reforms” his administration has made: the imposition of a 60-month lifetime limit for receiving TANF benefits, restrictions on the ability of noncitizens to collect welfare benefits and a provision in Maine law that allows the state to cut off TANF benefits for drug felons convicted within the past 20 years who fail a series of drug tests.

They’re policy changes that might appeal to voters, but they don’t address the underlying causes that drive people to seek welfare assistance in the first place, and they don’t, on their own, set welfare recipients on a path toward financial independence.

The drug test provision, for one, hasn’t even been implemented because of the expense involved and the possibility the policy wouldn’t stand up in court.

The 60-month lifetime limit on cash benefits certainly has had an effect on welfare in Maine. The Department of Health and Human Services’ TANF caseload has fallen 41 percent since the limit took effect at the start of 2012, providing an ideal talking point for a GOP governor who has made the state’s welfare programs a familiar policy target.

But the lifetime limit isn’t an effective reform on its own. Although it forces people off the welfare rolls, their need for assistance doesn’t disappear.

Fredette’s suggested reforms fit the same pattern. Whether they pass the Democratically controlled Legislature or not, they set up attractive talking points for Republicans seeking an advantage in 2014. But they’re not much more than that.

Fredette might emphasize a different policy direction if he wants to invest his energy in freeing future generations from welfare dependency and setting current recipients on a path to permanent financial independence. Ironically, it’s the direction the LePage administration has taken in making some key reforms to the state’s TANF program that the administration and Republicans don’t tout as loudly as the 60-month limit.

The Department of Health and Human Services in recent years has strengthened TANF’s ties with the state Department of Labor to make many of the same job search and training resources available to unemployed workers also available to TANF recipients.

In emphasizing constructive reforms, Fredette could also encourage additional investment and participation in Maine’s Parents as Scholars program. The program offers TANF benefits to low-income parents enrolled in two- and four-year degree programs, recognizing the importance of education to long-term, stable employment.

A 2008 paper by professors Sandra Butler and Luisa Deprez uses a decade of evidence to show 95 percent of former Parents as Scholars participants they surveyed secured employment after participating in the program. They were also earning more money.

In addition, Fredette might follow the advice of law enforcement officials in Cumberland County, who last week called for substantial investments in early childhood education as a long-term strategy to reduce Maine’s inmate population. In 2007, Maine’s per-inmate spending — $64,155 — was second highest in the nation, according to a 2010 paper by University of Maine economics professor Philip Trostel.

Earlier this year, Trostel showed in another study that taxpayer investment in early childhood education pays for itself by the time a child reaches age 14. Later in life, the payoff continues to grow, and government spending declines by $27,100 per early childhood education participant in the form of increased earnings and tax revenue, fewer incarcerations and less welfare dependence.

It seems policymakers have a clear, evidence-based path to pursue if they want to free future generations from government dependence. If only they would act on the evidence.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/10/09/opinion/maine-gop-welfare-reform-is-for-campaign-trail-not-major-impact/ printed on August 27, 2014