Bangor rethinks workfare

Posted Oct. 05, 2009, at 9:45 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The biggest concern many people have about general assistance, a temporary subsidy doled out by municipalities to struggling Mainers, is that it’s a no-strings-attached handout.

While that assessment is not true, perception often speaks louder than reality. City of Bangor Health and Human Services Director Shawn Yardley and his staff recently developed some changes to the city’s general assistance guidelines that help address that concern.

Yardley’s office has pledged to work more closely with city agencies and area nonprofits to identify opportunities for general assistance recipients to work in order to receive their subsidy. That element of general assistance — known as workfare — has always been around but it hasn’t always been fully utilized, Yardley said.

“Historically, the challenge has been finding a pool of available work sites,” he said Monday. “Since there has to be adequate supervision and oversight, that makes it even more difficult. It’s not that we haven’t done some, just not as much as we would like.”

Yardley said his office is developing a model to harness more labor-ready projects in the area that could use assistance. Workfare candidates would simply show up at the general assistance office in the morning and be dispatched to a job site. The times would even be coordinated with the city’s bus schedule.

The benefits could be immeasurable, according to Yardley.

“Already, there have been times where someone goes to work on workfare and that leads to a job,” Yardley said. “Sometimes, it gives people a chance to have a positive reference when they go apply for jobs. In other cases, it motivates people in a different way. They figure, if I have to go to work [to get assistance], I might as well just get a job myself. There is a lot of upside and very little downside.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services Office of Integrated Access and Support oversees general assistance at the statewide level, but each city or town handles its own program. In most cases, the state pays for 50 percent of what is administered to those in need, whether it’s a heating bill or a rent voucher, and the municipality covers the other half. In some cases, where the need is especially high — Bangor, for instance — the state pays 90 percent.

Cindy Boyd, a program manager for the Office of Integrated Access and Support, said workfare is allowed under state guidelines but not required.

“There are some towns that do it and some that don’t,” Boyd said. “Some smaller towns just don’t have enough resources, but in bigger towns like Bangor it makes sense.”

She agreed with Yardley’s assessment that workfare is a win-win proposition.

“It teaches them simple skills like getting up and going to work,” Boyd said.

Eligibility for general assistance is decided solely by designated municipal officials, and the process involves an in-person interview to determine the specific level of hardship. The maximum allowable amount of assistance is based on income and the fair market value of rent, including utilities, in a given area. In Bangor, that equates to $571 each month for a household of one. For a family of four, the maximum is $1,080 each month.

In Bangor, rent or mortgage needs make up about 80 percent of general assistance, but aid is available for other things such as heat or other utilities. Since 2002, the city’s general assistance budget has increased steadily every year from $848,000 in 2002 to more than $2 million last year.

Yardley said Bangor’s policy is to require workfare for all able-bodied recipients of general assistance, but he said it hasn’t always been a viable option. So far, Yardley’s office has sent e-mails to all city department heads and area nonprofits about the push for workfare. He briefed city councilors on the idea last week and it was met with support.

“If we can get people to feel good about that contribution, I think that can only help,” Bangor City Council Chairman Gerry Palmer said. “I think taxpayers will be more supportive as well.”

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