AUGUSTA, Maine — The federal Administration for Children & Families has notified the state that it could be liable for more than $7.1 million in fines for failure to meet work participation rates in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 2011.
Gov. Paul LePage framed the situation as further evidence of the need for welfare reforms he and many of his Republican colleagues have long called for. He said Thursday that Maine could have taken care of the problem by passing welfare reform bills he proposed last month.
“Maine makes it far too easy for welfare recipients to avoid getting the experience they need to get a job, and this is costing millions of wasted taxpayer dollars in federal fines,” said LePage. “Our common-sense legislation would have sent a very clear message that if you are on welfare, Maine taxpayers expect you to do all you can to get a job and work. But Democrats would rather let welfare recipients skip out on work.”
Democrats and advocates counter that passage of those bills would have had no impact on what happened in 2011, and the state has already taken most of the necessary steps to avoid paying the fine.
“It’s certainly not true that the state owes this $7 million or that it’s ever going to have to pay it,” said Liz Schott, a TANF expert who works for the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “If the state comes into compliance, that can likely wipe out these fines.”
Schott said Maine has been the subject of announced fines related to TANF programs since 2007. She added that to date, Maine has never had to pay “a single penny” because of its efforts to comply with the federal requirements
TANF is funded jointly with state and federal dollars. At issue are federal rules that require 50 percent of all TANF recipients and 90 percent of two-parent families — which make up a small percentage of TANF cases — to be working or participating in an approved work-related activity. Using a formula that involves the state’s improvement on that front since 2007, the Administration for Children & Families said in a letter to Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew on Tuesday that in 2011, 47.5 percent of all families were meeting the work-participation rate, along with 87.5 percent of two-parent households.
However, federal rules say that if a state takes any of a number of steps to improve its work-participation rates, fines from past years can be significantly reduced or eliminated.
LePage said Thursday in a written statement that he tried to fix the problem with two bills that were rejected earlier this month, LD 1815 and LD 1842, behind opposition from mostly Democrats. Among other things, the bills would have required work-ready TANF recipients to apply for three jobs before receiving benefits and reduced Maine’s list of exemptions to the federal work requirements.
Specifically, LD 1842 would have ended a “good cause” work requirement exemption for TANF recipients who can’t get a job because of factors such as a lack of transportation or sick children. It also would have eliminated the Parents as Scholars program, which offers a monthly cash benefit through the TANF program for parents working on a college degree. Those changes would have forced some TANF recipients to pursue jobs and presumably increased the program’s work requirement numbers, though Schott and others said the changes would have actually weakened outcomes in the program.
Robyn Merrill, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, agreed. She said that the reasons why some TANF recipients can’t work are the same reasons for being forced onto TANF in the first place.
“This is a population of very needy families, some with disabilities and some who are very poor and don’t have a car,” said Merrill. “There are lots of reasons that families are not working in these circumstances.”
Part of the way that Maine has come into compliance with the work requirement law since 2011 is by offering benefits such as college tax credits and Head Start, which under federal TANF rules is considered a “maintenance of effort” that counts favorably toward the state’s work participation rate. In other words, the state is providing benefits through other programs that otherwise would fall to TANF.
John Martins, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that Maine is in compliance with the all-families rate but not the two-parent rate. He also said that the department has contracted with a firm, Augusta-based Public Consulting Group, to analyze Maine’s TANF work participation rates and explore strategies to increase the use of state money to increase maintenance-of-effort spending.
Martins said that the state has filed corrective action plans with the federal government in relation to its failure to meet work participation rates in 2007-10. He said the department has two months to submit a corrective action plan in relation to the 2011 sanction announced this week.
“At some point, the federal government will assess our performance under the plan and notify the state about the final penalty that will be assessed,” Martins said to the BDN in response to emailed questions. “We have no indication of how the federal government will rule.”
Martins said the department is following directives from LePage to focus on putting people to work as a means of improving the work participation rate. That effort is centered around each TANF recipient receiving an assessment of his or her job and training prospects before being referred to one of 12 worksite development specialists and the state’s ASPIRE program.
That effort was championed by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who after years of trying, last year succeeded in enactment of his ticket-to-work bill, which went into law without LePage’s signature.
“The best anti-poverty program is a job,” said Eves in a written statement Thursday. “That’s why lawmakers overwhelmingly backed my ticket-to-work law that emphasized education and training to help struggling families get jobs and move out of poverty.”
Regardless, Republican leaders in the Legislature said defeat of LD 1815 and LD 1842 was irresponsible.
“To sit back and hope that the federal chickens don’t come home to roost would be shockingly irresponsible and symbolic of the attitude that got us here in the first place,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton. “When you require people to look for work before looking for welfare, and you eliminate loopholes in the work search requirement, you’re going to see more people working.”
Schott said there is widespread agreement in Congress that the work participation rate portion of the TANF program is deeply flawed, but a compromise solution has been elusive.
“Unfortunately, it’s politics, not policy, that is the problem,” she said.