President Ronald Reagan famously said, “I believe the best social program is a job.”
Those words were spoken in a different era, but they still ring true here in Maine today, and they are central to the new approach Republicans in Augusta are taking to move more Mainers from welfare to the workforce.
We continue to receive good news on Maine’s unemployment rate, which has been dropping steadily and has remained well below the national average for 79 consecutive months. Since Gov. Paul LePage took office and the Republican-led 125th Legislature passed numerous landmark economic reforms, 20,000 private-sector jobs have been created. There are about 7,200 job openings in the Maine Job Bank.
But, according to state labor officials, too many Mainers remain trapped in the cycle of government dependency, despite their willingness and desire to work. Many new jobs in our growing economy require explicit, complex and sophisticated skills — think health care, for example. That makes it difficult for people who have lost jobs in one industry, such as in mills or construction, to transfer directly to jobs in other growing industries. When a laid-off worker runs out of unemployment benefits, he or she faces difficult choices. Supporting a family while training for a new career is a daunting task, especially if one has been out of school for a long time. Facing that challenge and in need of support, many turn to the Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS.
Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette and Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew recently joined forces in a series of initiatives aimed at getting these Mainers into the workforce permanently. Neither involves new legislation or rule changes but focuses on using existing resources to create a culture change within the system.
These two departments traditionally have served the jobless population in different capacities. DHHS focuses on ensuring those Mainers have life’s necessities, such as food, clothing and child care, while the Department of Labor concentrates on matching job seekers with existing job vacancies. In the past, these missions rarely intersected to serve the needs of those trying to move from welfare to work, but that’s starting to change.
It’s happening within two government programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment, known as ASPIRE. The labor department is contracting with DHHS to provide caseworkers to those in the ASPIRE program to ensure they have the necessary tools to get a job.
Mayhew recently noted that 1,500 of the roughly 8,000 TANF clients in Maine lack a high school diploma or equivalency, yet 80 percent of those assessed expressed a “strong or urgent desire” to work.
In many cases, getting them back to work involves performing an assessment on the TANF/ASPIRE recipient to determine what type of work they are qualified for and what barriers need to be removed before they can seek employment. Often, this is a simple matter of knowing how to construct a resume and dress for a job interview. In other cases, it means retraining someone who is used to working in an industrial environment to become proficient in office skills, or vice versa. Or it might mean going back to school. Regardless, the caseworkers are taking a more active role in addressing the employment needs of those who are in the system and transitioning them out of welfare.
Another approach the departments are using is making career services available at DHHS sites, so when a recipient goes to inquire about benefits he or she can also be exposed to information about career opportunities, training and upcoming job fairs.
Paquette says the culture change means taking people out of their comfort zones, breaking down their barriers to employment, getting them into the workforce and, as a result, raising their sense of self-worth and esteem.
“We want the system to run smoothly, but the focus shouldn’t be on simply providing benefits. It should be on helping them access employment and focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t,” Paquette said.
The recent reports about the number of Mainers returning to the workforce are encouraging, but too many among us remain trapped in the cycle of government dependency. The new initiatives by DHHS and the labor department to get them into the workforce are an important first step in ending that cycle.
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, serves on the Maine Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee.