AUGUSTA, Maine — Advocacy groups are calling on lawmakers to focus on facts, not anecdotes and stereotypes, as Gov. Paul LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature gear 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 includes an education and retraining program called ASPIRE. Last year, Maine distributed roughly $32 million in TANF benefits.
The yearlong study, conducted by Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin at the University of New England and Sandy Butler at the University of Maine, concluded 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 in Maine were selected at random to responded to the 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 receives TANF benefits, but the median age of children in TANF families surveyed was under 2.
- The median length of time that families received TANF was 1½ years.
Among those who spoke during a press conference Wednesday in Augusta was Pam Smith, a current TANF recipient who declined to identify her where she lives.
“As with others who find themselves on TANF, I’d much rather be supporting myself,” she said. “I’m a hard worker. But I also know that more training will give me a better chance at finding a job that provides me with the wages and hours that I need to support my family.”
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 who 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 the 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, another federal entitlement.
“What we learned from these findings is that it’s impossible to assess the TANF program without considering the economic and health factors that shape the lives of low-income Mainers — the low-wage labor market, illness, disability and child care needs,” McLaughlin said.
Perhaps the biggest misconception, advocates said, is the notion that Mainers are living luxuriously 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 amount for any New England state.
“As the conversation continues, there may be some differences of opinions, but it seems like this was a very serious attempt to share some important information,” said Dan Demeritt, spokesman for Gov. LePage. “They spent a lot of time working with folks that are recipients and that expertise is really valuable.”
Although the advocacy groups agreed that welfare reform should be a priority, representatives expressed concerns that lawmakers are relying on sensational stories of fraud and abuse.
“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.
Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, is a longtime supporter of welfare reform, and his bill, LD 59, would create a five-point reform plan. Other lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have submitted bills to tighten eligibility requirements and further prevent abuse.
Last fall, the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center released a report claiming that Maine was the most welfare-dependent state in the country. The same report ranked Maine second among states for enrollment in TANF and said some TANF eligibility requirements are too loose.
Many, including the state’s own health and human services director, panned the report for skewing the numbers. However, its main author, Stephen Bowen, is now a senior policy adviser to LePage, who campaigned on a platform of reducing the state’s dependence on welfare.
“The governor thinks we need to change from not just signing up people because they qualify but putting people in situations where they can succeed,” Demeritt said.