Convenient timing last week allowed Gov. Paul LePage to continue his disingenuous “welfare reform” campaign and bash his Democratic opponents for a lenient state welfare system. It’s the latest stage in a campaign that has misrepresented reality and emphasized a path to welfare “reform” that has more to do with cutting off assistance than ensuring successful outcomes from what is ostensibly an employment program.
LePage received word from the federal government April 15 that Maine faces $7.1 million in fines because the state didn’t meet federal “work participation” requirements in 2011 that are a feature of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the primary cash assistance program for low-income families. Maine posted a 19.1 percent rate overall against a 47.5 percent target and 18.7 percent for two-parent families against an 87.5 percent target.
Federal fiscal year 2011 is the fifth consecutive year for which Maine faces federal fines for falling short of TANF work requirements. But the state hasn’t yet had to pay a cent. The Department of Health and Human Services is awaiting final word from federal officials on what it owes for 2007. If Maine ends up owing anything, it’s bound to be substantially less than the millions of dollars initially levied.
That’s because the Maine DHHS says the state — without passing LePage’s welfare bills — has come into compliance for its overall TANF work participation rate since federal fiscal year 2011 (which ended Sept. 30, 2011). Federal rules allow states to largely or entirely avoid fines when they file plans outlining the steps they’ll take to comply — and then come into compliance in subsequent years.
What’s noteworthy is that Maine’s supposed improvement since 2011 has little to do with more of Maine’s TANF recipients successfully finding work, receiving training or education to improve their job prospects, or leaving the program because of employment success.
The state’s corrective action plan for addressing its 2007 fines lays out a strategy that relies almost exclusively on shrinking the number of TANF recipients — with those most likely to lose assistance being those who face the most substantial barriers to work.
The 2007 corrective plan, completed in 2011, relies on enforcement of the state’s new five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits, which has corresponded with almost a 50 percent decline in the state’s TANF caseload (that’s about 6,900 fewer cases today than there were three years ago); the use of sanctions, followed by “case closure,” for certain adults who don’t follow TANF’s work requirements; and increased staffing to help applicants for federal disability benefits complete their applications.
While LePage says his desires are to conform with federal requirements and ensure that TANF recipients work, his administration has crafted a compliance strategy that includes no measures that actually make it more likely that TANF participants will work.
That strategy is a response to a federal system with perverse incentives that rewards states for slashing TANF enrollment, discouraging eligible people from seeking assistance in the first place and penalizing people who don’t follow the program’s rules in order to remove them from the calculation. In other words, TANF is largely a compliance-driven numbers game rather than a program with incentives that stress positive outcomes.
States receive “credits” from the federal government when their TANF caseloads shrink that lower the participation rate targets they have to hit. Plus, when states offload the recipients who are least likely to be able to work, their work participation rates improve as a matter of mathematics.
They receive the same credit for successful outcomes — seeing to it that a TANF recipient becomes successfully employed and no longer needs assistance — as they do for simply cutting off assistance.
The welfare-to-work reforms of 1996 have led states to cut TANF caseloads more than 60 percent. But it’s not because of successes in combating poverty. The Government Accountability Office found that 87 percent of the TANF caseload decline between 1995 and 2005 was the result of “a decline in eligible families participating in TANF, rather than increased incomes.”
In playing up Maine’s potential federal fines for political advantage, LePage is calling for strict compliance with a flawed federal law and calling it reform. That “reform” has little to do with boosting work and escaping poverty.