The principle guiding Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to transform state assistance programs seems to be separating the “truly needy” from those drawing benefits as a cushy way of life. In fact, he ended his speech to a joint session of the Legislature last week by bluntly telling those who are able to work to “get a job.”
On the matter of principle — that only those who really need help should get it — the governor will find broad agreement. But his administration’s approach to defining those in need may rely more on stereotypes and anecdotes than on facts. On the savings the governor hopes to book in his budget by cranking down the assistance spigot, he will not find agreement. The waste and fraud are just not there. And a life on assistance is hardly a life to be envied.
The biggest ticket item the governor identified in his budget pitch relating to assistance is a change in the eligibility of legal noncitizens. That group is currently not eligible for TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which went into effect in 1996 as part of the federal welfare reform law. But legal noncitizens have been able to draw benefits from MaineCare (the state’s Medicaid program). Gov. LePage proposes to make those legal noncitizens wait five years before drawing MaineCare benefits. This, he says, will save the state about $16 million. Another $3.5 million in savings would be booked by denying that group other assistance.
But are legal noncitizens not needy by virtue of their residency status, even if they are impoverished? Wouldn’t state assistance help them in their path toward productive citizenship?
And what about the youngest among us? Currently, 25,000 children draw TANF benefits, representing about 14,000 households. Children, it seems plain enough, can’t “get a job” to improve their economic lot. Interestingly, the governor twice in his budget speech pledged to protect assistance to the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill and veterans — leaving out any mention of children.
As of last month, among the state’s population of 1.3 million, 395,760 drew some kind of assistance benefits, the Department of Health and Human Services reports. But only about 4 percent of DHHS cases last longer than five years. Many of those are either disabled or caring for a child or adult who is disabled. In fact, with about 10 percent of the population disabled, Maine ranks sixth in the nation.
Social service advocates say the LePage administration’s budget also may stop people — not just noncitizens — from enrolling in MaineCare if their income falls in the range of 133 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold. Discussing the eligibility threshold makes more sense as an approach to transforming assistance than targeting a group of people.
Because the governor used broad rhetoric and implied that a huge swath of the population are freeloaders not needing help, legislators will have to winnow out the facts. If they are to represent their constituents well, they need to hear logical arguments for cutting assistance, with hard numbers showing what will be saved — and what may be lost.