There’s no way Gov. Paul LePage thought he could get his “welfare reform” bills through the Democratic-led Legislature.
That’s why, on top of being uncreative and harmful, the proposals also seem insincere. LePage apparently isn’t as interested in actually helping people in poverty as he is in towing the tea party line. If he wanted to spur real reform, he would work with the Legislature to find common ground on genuine ways to prepare welfare recipients for lasting success in the workforce.
Take the governor’s bill LD 1815, sponsored by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, which a majority of members on the legislative Health and Human Services Committee voted against Wednesday. It would require people seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to first apply for three advertised jobs and show verifiable documentation of the applications.
On first glance, it might seem like a benign plan. Everyone wants people to search for work before they apply for welfare benefits. But that’s about where the reasoning stops. This bill isn’t actually about helping people find work. It’s about preventing them from getting benefits. It would erect barriers to aid in the name of instilling a work ethic. Watch for this bill to come up in political talking points this fall.
Most of the people seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — which is a cash beneﬁt for families with minor children in the home — have worked and want to work. They tend to be in crisis (a quarter are victims of domestic violence), and their problems are complex. Most recipients are women who live with a disability, care for a child with a disability or have another family member who is disabled. A significant portion do not have a high school diploma.
Requiring them to submit proof of job applications — when it’s possible that they cannot physically work right then or do not have transportation or child care to permit them to work — in addition to creating a new bureaucratic process to verify whether potential applicants have applied for three jobs is not a serious proposal.
Though the bill would apply the upfront work requirement to those who are “job ready as determined by the department,” we fear the provision would be applied incorrectly — as it appears it has been for TANF recipients seeking an extension of benefits — and would slow down the application process to the detriment of those facing emergencies.
The legislation even works against the priorities the administration has set itself. The Department of Health and Human Services, following the passage of legislation last year, is beginning to use a more individualized approach to help address the barriers each family receiving assistance needs to overcome in order to obtain and retain work. This is the right direction.
A successful Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would not require people to apply for an arbitrary number of jobs for the sake of meeting certain rules. It would meet applicants’ immediate needs and then help them figure out the way forward, to ensure they maintain work that fits their unique situation, so they do not need to return to benefits. It would focus on improving outcomes that prevent destitution.
Requiring an upfront work requirement might appeal to some voters, but it wouldn’t address the underlying causes that drive people to seek assistance. The work needed to actually help people achieve financial independence doesn’t fit neatly into election year messaging. In addition, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients are already required to work, search for work, volunteer or participate in training or education programs unless they qualify for an exemption.
LePage has cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rolls nearly in half since instituting a 60-month time limit two years ago. In January 2012, there were 13,522 households receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This past February, it was down to 7,396. The number of children who lost access to benefits over the two years was 11,815.
It’s difficult to believe the governor when he says he is “the first one in line to help someone in need.” It seems as if he is the one lining up his talking points for the November election instead.