June 18, 2018
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Advocates urge focus on facts, not stereotypes, as Legislature tackles welfare

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Advocacy groups are calling on lawmakers to focus on facts, not anecdotes or stereotypes, as the Republican-controlled Legislature gears up to tackle welfare reform.

Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine Women’s Lobby released a study Wednesday of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — or TANF — cases in Maine. TANF is a federal entitlement program, administered by states, that provides a cash benefit to families with dependent children and also includes an education and retraining program called ASPIRE.

The yearlong study, conducted by Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin at the University of New England, and Sandy Butler of the University of Maine, concludes that recent discussions of welfare reform make unfair generalizations about TANF families.

“While we believe that the program can be improved, we all need to start with a common understanding of what TANF is, and what it isn’t,” said Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners. “Otherwise, changes in the program could put struggling families further at risk while also damaging Maine’s economy.”

More than 1,000 families responded to the random survey, which was used to compile data on who is receiving TANF:

  • Ninety-two percent of recipients are women, a reflection of the high-number of single-parent households.
  • One in 11 Maine children receive TANF benefits, but the median age of children in TANF families surveyed was under the age of 2.
  • The median length of time that families received TANF was 1½ years.

Supporters of the study said it’s not just who is relying on TANF that’s important but why.

Although 97 percent of respondents have work experience, about 42 percent applied for TANF because they couldn’t find a job. Those that did work reported an average wage of $8.36 per hour, only slightly higher than a state TANF survey done 10 years ago.

Few TANF families led by single mothers receive child support payments regularly. Almost half of TANF families surveyed did not own a vehicle. Almost one-third said a lack of affordable child care caused them to turn to TANF.

Two-thirds of families included at least one member with a disability and many said TANF is bridging the gap until they are approved for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, another federal entitlement.

Perhaps the biggest misconception, advocates said, is the notion the Mainers are living the high life thanks to TANF benefits. In 10 years, TANF benefits have not increased. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of three in Maine is $485, the lowest number for any New England state.

Although the advocacy groups agreed that welfare reform should be a priority, representatives expressed concerns that lawmakers are relying on sensational stories.

“We urge lawmakers to fully understand the circumstances of these families before making decisions that will have consequences to children, families, and our economy,” said Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “We’re here to talk about what TANF is really about. It’s about low-income Mainers — mostly women — struggling in a labor market with low wages and inflexible hours. It’s about Mainers struggling with the barriers presented by a work-limiting disability. And, it’s about women and children managing the impact of domestic abuse.”

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