Gov. Paul LePage is focusing his energy of late on eradicating welfare fraud. Or at least that’s where he’s directed much of his recent rhetoric. And we think it’s no coincidence the governor is sharpening his welfare rhetoric as the election season looms.
With a new legislative session underway, LePage has said he’s introducing three measures aimed at cracking down on abuses in the welfare system.
One bill would institute an upfront work search requirement for applicants for cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. A second would cut back on TANF administrators’ latitude to grant exceptions to the requirement that beneficiaries participate in a TANF-connected education, training and work search program.
The third, and more intricate, bill would further limit the locations where TANF beneficiaries would be able to spend their cash assistance using Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. The details so far have been limited, but the bill might restrict EBT card use to certain geographic areas, further limit their use at certain types of business establishments and restrict the portion of TANF allowances beneficiaries can withdraw as cash.
LePage announced his plans to propose this legislation more than a month ago. All the while, his administration has released data on EBT card transactions that the governor has said show widespread abuse. And LePage has continued to discuss his resolve to eliminate fraud and abuse from Maine’s welfare system.
Well? For now, we have to take his word for it. LePage has yet to unveil any of the three measures in written form, leaving legislators with nothing substantive to debate and the public with little to evaluate besides LePage’s rhetoric.
That rhetoric was on display Saturday during a WGAN radio interview with BDN columnist Ethan Strimling. “Wouldn’t you agree that most people on welfare use it accurately?” Strimling asked during that 17-minute exchange. “No,” LePage replied.
LePage, during the exchange, also pressed Strimling to guess the time of day when welfare benefits are most commonly used. “I’ll give you a four-hour spread,” the governor said.
Strimling: “I’d say midday.”
LePage: “How about midnight to 3 a.m. — is the most active, is the first three days of the loadup of the card.”
As it turns out, LePage’s contention is easily disproven by a quick look at a visual display of the EBT card transaction data on the website of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center. Without even digging into the data, the group’s graphic clearly shows the bulk of EBT transactions in 2011, 2012 and 2013 happening during daylight hours rather than around midnight — even on the first three days of each month.
The hyperbole and inaccuracy should make it evident to LePage why many mistrust his intentions in focusing so heavily on welfare fraud. It’s easy to assume the governor cares more about scoring political points and undermining the public’s confidence in public assistance programs than in giving the programs’ beneficiaries the hand up they need to put poverty behind them.
When LePage unveils his bills, we’ll be curious to see how the governor tackles the clearly complex challenge of further restricting the use of benefits by geography and by type of business. It’s a challenge that’s even tripped up much larger states such as California.
But what we’re more anxious to see from LePage — and where we’d prefer to see him devote his energy — are proposals that focus on lifting TANF beneficiaries out of poverty and equipping future generations with the tools they need to avoid poverty and public assistance altogether.
That means a focus on and additional investments in programs such as Parents as Scholars, which offers TANF benefits to low-income parents enrolled in two- and four-year degree programs and recognizes the importance of education to long-term, stable employment.
And it means a focus on and substantial investment in early childhood education as a long-term strategy to boost academic achievement, public health and employment while reducing welfare dependence, criminal behavior and expensive prosecution and incarceration.
It’s well past time for LePage to convert his strident rhetoric on welfare into productive policy reforms.