On Monday, Gov. Paul LePage held a press conference to promote multiple “welfare reform” proposals. Let’s talk about one in particular, which didn’t draw much attention — the one that would eliminate a successful program, formed based on research, that actually helps people escape poverty. It’s called Parents as Scholars.
LD 1842, a governor’s bill sponsored by Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, would end the student aid program run by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Each year, it can help up to 2,000 low-income parents in two- or four-year college degree programs by providing assistance with child care, transportation, books and other support services. Parents who are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are eligible for Parents as Scholars, and the benefits are the same — a maximum of $485 per month for a family of three.
The point is to help parents — often single mothers — escape the minimum-wage economy and lift themselves out of poverty. Studies show those who complete the program experience a greater quality of life and require less state support in the future. LePage says that’s his goal, but how can one believe him?
Several years after the Legislature created Parents as Scholars in 1997, professors at the University of Maine surveyed the difference in wages between those who participated in the program and those who just received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. They found Parents as Scholars participants’ wages were on average more than $2 per hour higher than those with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They were more likely to have jobs with benefits. And they were half as likely to need to return to government assistance.
Children benefit when their parents further their education and create an economically secure environment. Persistently poor children are nearly 90 percent more likely than children who were never poor to enter their 20s without completing high school and four times more likely to give birth outside of marriage in their teenage years, according to a 2012 study by the Urban Institute.
The LePage administration’s assertions about the urgent need to align Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — and, thus, Parents as Scholars — with federal work requirements to avoid penalties are overblown. The students in this program count against the state’s ability to meet a restrictive, burdensome federal participation rate, as vocational education is only counted toward the rate for one year. Since college degrees take more than a year, after that time, Parents as Scholars participants begin to “count against” the state in meeting its mandated rate.
Maine can fix the problem, as other states have, by simply changing the way it administers the program. The approach is even promoted by the federal government. Maine hasn’t followed the lead of other states, however. Instead, it has failed to meet the required rates in recent years and had to submit corrective action plans to the federal government to avoid penalties.
If Maine wants to take a different approach, it should look to other states for examples of how to deal with a federal law that many in Congress agree should change. Certainly, it should not eliminate Parents as Scholars.
The program has been a model for other states seeking more permanent ways to lift more people out of poverty. It has been championed by Democrats and Republicans alike, including Republican and former Sen. Olympia Snowe, who sought to make it easier for states across the country to replicate the program.
If Maine wants to change it in a way that improves the successful program — such as to get more people to participate — it should have that discussion. But ending the program would be shortsighted, heartless and only work against LePage’s supposed goal of ending welfare dependency.