December 10, 2018
Editorials Latest News | Paul LePage | 129th Legislature | Impeachment | UMaine Black Bears

LePage administration tries to show it’s doing some good with welfare funds. It isn’t working.

Darren Fishell | BDN
Darren Fishell | BDN
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services' offices are shown in this Dec. 1, 2017, photo.

Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has made a point of scaling back welfare in Maine. Since his administration’s 2011 start, the number of low-income families with children receiving small amounts of cash assistance each month has fallen by more than two-thirds.

The results have often been disastrous.

A 2013 study by University of Maine social work professor Sandy Butler found that more than a third of families she surveyed who lost assistance after the state implemented a five-year lifetime limit on the financial help went on to lose electricity or another utility service. Twenty percent reported being evicted, having to relocate or moving to a homeless shelter. And 70 percent reported relying on food banks for sustenance after losing help from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The LePage administration has tried to portray its assistance-eliminating policies as unquestionable successes that have inspired the state’s poorest residents to work and get by without the state’s help, but a document it released last spring show its policies have been anything but.

In 2015, three years after they lost cash assistance from TANF due to the implementation of the time limit, only a third of families included in the LePage administration’s analysis were working. And assuming they had consistent employment, their wages worked out to less than the federal poverty level.

While the state’s poorest families are worse off because of administration policies, those policies have effectively provided the LePage administration with a cash windfall of tens of millions of dollars: The state has continued to receive the $78.1 million TANF grant from the federal government, which it no longer fully spends on its core purposes — financial and employment help for the state’s poorest families.

So the money has been spread throughout the Department of Health and Human Services budget. A BDN review in June showed the state had plans this year to spend a third of TANF funds on pre-existing state social service obligations in order to free up the state funds normally devoted to those expenses. Those state funds were being used to fund child protective services, teen homeless shelters and services for domestic violence victims. These are important programs, and lawmakers had appropriated state funds to pay for them so they wouldn’t have to be funded at the expense of the well-being of families in difficult circumstances.

A small portion of the TANF funds are paying for new initiatives DHHS has never before funded with TANF, including after-school programs run by more than a dozen organizations around the state.

“They’re trying to reduce the caseload rolls and then use a fraction of the money to do something noble sounding,” Samuel Hammond, poverty and welfare policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., recently told the BDN.

Maine DHHS has claimed that reappropriating a small amount of TANF funds for after-school programs — less than 2 percent of the TANF funds it plans to spend this year — is a way to “better support our youth.” And former DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has said that the department is now supporting more families through TANF than it previously did when it mainly devoted TANF to cash assistance.

However, it’s unlikely Maine DHHS knows whether this is the case. The department didn’t answer questions from the BDN regarding the number of children attending the TANF-funded after-school programs and the number of those children who would be unable to attend an after-school program if not for the TANF funding. The department similarly didn’t answer questions about how it determined after-school programs represented the most effective use of TANF funds and how it ensured it was supporting the highest-quality after-school programs.

After-school programs can be beneficial, if designed right, but they’re no substitute for a family’s financial stability.

And while the LePage administration tries to claim that such programs represent how it now spends TANF funds, the administration is in reality using more of the funds for state budget relief while setting aside a token amount so it can claim it’s doing some good.

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