Lately it seems there is much talk about how we are going to fix “the system” and protect ourselves from fraud and waste. We believe it is best to start with factual information.
We work with people who are poor — people who experience homelessness, have disabling conditions or have fallen victim to domestic violence and are rebuilding their lives. For many, this poverty goes back generations; there is no easy way out. For others it is a temporary state. All want out of it.
We would love to see solutions to these very complex issues within our society that don’t involve blaming the person who is poor.
In the last decade we have seen cuts to programs serving the poor, and opportunities with resources to solve problems were rare. This is sad to us because we know exactly how to end homelessness, and whenever we commit the resources to do so, we can end it.
And more crushing still, we have proved in Maine with two landmark studies, supported by numerous national studies, that appropriate support and housing work. It costs less, in some cases far less, to house people than to leave them homeless where they ricochet through our most expensive emergency systems of care — emergency rooms, police, rescue, etc. Moreover, people get well when they are stable, and they contribute to our economy rather than costing us all. But we won’t get there if we think of people as undeserving, or if we become convinced they are somehow taking advantage of us.
So, in anticipation of messages about the “undeserving poor” and how our systems are riddled with abuse and waste — perpetuating myths that poor people are actually having a lavish time taking advantage of the rest of us — we wanted to point out some actual, factual information about our welfare system and our neighbors who are using these programs.
Most families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, are headed by women raising very young children on their own. TANF prevents nearly 25,000 Maine children — one in 12 of all Maine children — from going without basic needs such as housing, food and heat.
TANF serves children who live in deep poverty; one in six Maine children is considered poor by federal poverty standards, but only that one in 12 children who lives in deep poverty actually receives TANF.
The maximum TANF benefit for a family of three is $485 per month, which is 32 percent of the federal poverty level. This is the lowest in New England, and nearly 20 percent less than the average of the rest of the New England states.
Most families receive assistance for a short time. Based on a recent study, the median length of time that families receive TANF is 18 months.
From 2008 through July 2010, nearly twice as many aid recipients left Maine each month compared with the number who moved to Maine.
Maine has the second-highest rate of “very low food security” (hunger) in the nation.
Less than 1 percent of all 2010 recipients of public benefits came to Maine from another state.
In Bangor, the second-largest General Assistance program in Maine, 64 percent of recipients in calendar year 2010 received benefits for less than six months.
This information comes from “Families in Focus: Moving beyond anecdotes. Lessons from a 2010 survey of Maine TANF Families” by Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin of the University of New England and Sandra S. Butler of the University of Maine, Bangor Health and Community Services Department and the Maine Depart-ment of Health and Human Services.
We are hoping that clear, informed minds prevail when it comes to setting policies around solving the complexities that perpetuate poverty. Let’s not allow ourselves to blame our neighbors who are poor. We don’t have to, and in Maine, we shouldn’t let it happen.
Cullen Ryan is the executive director of Community Housing of Maine. Shawn Yardley is the director of the Bangor Health and Community Services Department. Both are members of the Statewide Homeless Council.