One doesn’t have to read too far into the Alexander Group’s second report to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to realize the state hasn’t gotten its money’s worth. Gov. Paul LePage’s administration spent $925,000 on a no-bid contract for the state welfare system consultant, yet it’s difficult to read the Alexander Group’s 228-page document and take it seriously.
To start, it’s mid-May, and the second installment of the group’s five-part analysis of Maine’s government assistance programs that we’re just seeing now was due nearly five months ago. Yet in the foreword to this installment, the “Baseline Analysis of Maine’s Public-Welfare System,” the Alexander Group claims that it “turned this report around in an expedited manner because of the commissioner’s desire to move forward with reforming the system as quickly as possible.”
Based on the Alexander Group’s description of its work and characterization of its own members’ credentials, you’d expect a tremendously useful report with unique insight and innovative policy solutions to some of the genuine challenges facing Maine’s public assistance programs and the low-income people they serve.
Instead, what Maine has received is essentially a research paper on the structure of the public assistance programs Maine DHHS administers, along with unoriginal policy recommendations that aren’t backed up by analysis.
If the Alexander Group was hired to assemble a rigorous analysis for Maine DHHS — the agency that administers Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, General Assistance and more — why should the analysis include pages of elementary descriptions about how TANF’s work participation rates are calculated and the impact of the federal Farm Bill on food stamps?
So, what are some of the reforms the Alexander Group recommends for Maine?
— Instituting an upfront work search requirement, so those seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF — who are often in crisis situations — have to prove they have applied for work before they can receive help from the state.
— Cutting back on the exemptions that allow TANF recipients to not participate in activities that count toward Maine’s federal work participation requirements.
— Aligning TANF’s work program entirely with federal requirements for work participation activities, a move that would effectively eliminate the Parents as Scholars program, which allows low-income parents to receive benefits while they are working toward two- or four-year college degrees.
— Eliminating the law that allows cities and towns to recoup 90 percent of their general assistance costs from the state once they’ve crossed a legally defined threshold for the amount of assistance they’ve issued.
If these proposals sound familiar, they should. LePage proposed them all this past legislative session, and the Democratic-led Legislature rejected all of them. Apparently, the LePage administration has paid a consultant hundreds of thousands of dollars to recommend that the administration do what it has already tried to do and failed to accomplish.
And it’s not as if the Alexander Group has judiciously documented the costs and benefits of each policy in the process of making its case for each recommendation.
In fact, few of the group’s recommendations are backed up by sound reasoning. The Alexander Group praises Maine for the management of its food stamp program: The state has achieved a low error rate and a low rate of fraud. Yet the group’s recommendations concern tighter fraud controls during the application process and making fewer Maine residents eligible for food stamps. And the group’s recommendations for designing a program that helps to reverse Maine’s status as the third highest-ranking state for very low food security? There’s no mention in the report of that fundamental challenge.
LePage has gotten what he paid for with this report: seemingly independent confirmation for his disingenuous rhetoric about overly generous welfare programs and the damaging changes he has proposed for them. Unfortunately, the taxpayers who are footing the bill have gotten very little that’s of value to them.