May 27, 2018
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Numbers fail to tell whole story of poverty

By Ana Hicks, senior policy analyst, Maine Equal Justice Partners

Loaded with emotions and clouded by politics, it’s difficult to discuss poverty – its symptoms, causes and solutions – in a thoughtful and objective way.

News last week concerning anti-poverty programs in Maine and poverty rates is a good example of this challenge.

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey compared states in terms of the percentage of households that received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or General Assistance. The message was that Maine has a higher percentage of people receiving assistance from one of these two programs compared to many other states.

While this data does provide a part of the story, on its own it does very little to explain how well we are addressing poverty in Maine. What is more, the data does not accurately compare state experiences because programs are structured so differently from state to state.

But according to the data, about 28,000 households in Maine, or 5.2 percent, receive either TANF or General Assistance.

Meanwhile, Maine’s poverty rate in 2010 was 12.9 percent, up from 12.3 percent in 2009. For a mother with two children, the poverty line in 2010 was $18,530. Imagine trying to make ends meet for a family of three on just $356 a week. At that income level, the family is likely not eligible for TANF or General Assistance because their income is too high to qualify.

The real story in these numbers is that about 1 in 8 Maine households live in poverty, but only about 1 in 20 get help from General Assistance or TANF.

Too many Maine families are struggling financially, cut off from good jobs with benefits.

While Maine’s poverty rate is lower than the national average and the percentage of people who receive help is higher than the national average, too many families living in poverty don’t get the help they need.

Trends during the recent recession show that programs are unable to meet the needs of many families. For example, while unemployment grew by 59 percent from 2007 to 2010, the number of households receiving TANF increased by only 12 percent.

Meanwhile, the maximum amount of money that a struggling family of three can receive from TANF in Maine is the lowest in New England at just $485 a month.

Too many families with young children receive nothing from TANF and General Assistance, and even those who do get help still struggle to stay afloat.

But in the political context of the day, thoughtful and objective analysis of these data get lost.

The data show that two of our primary anti-poverty programs fail to serve too many families. This is a valuable fact that should inform the welfare reform debate in Maine. Yet, some turn this data on its head to argue that we should provide less help to families in need.

Real reform means making TANF and General Assistance work better and giving people the tools to take control and improve their lives.

Nicole Brown was born into a rural, middle-class Maine family. At age 21, she found herself the sole provider for her four-month-old son. At that time, she was unemployed and relied on $365 a month from TANF to provide for herself and an infant.

Soon, she found work at a local restaurant and discovered that even with a full-time job, her family still needed help from state assistance to make ends meet. Now after receiving TANF while working and taking classes full-time, she is able to support her family without relying on public assistance.

She credits anti-poverty programs like Parents as Scholars for changing her family’s life.

Despite all the rhetoric undermining support for these programs, TANF and General Assistance combined account for only 1.5 percent of the state General Fund budget.

If we want to make sure anti-poverty programs work – and help the people who need them most – we have to understand the facts, and not be distracted by anecdotes, stereotypes and overheated political rhetoric. We have a responsibility to be thoughtful and read data objectively.

When public policy is based on emotions and clouded by politics, children and families suffer. Mainers have always understood that we have an obligation to help our neighbors through tough times. We shouldn’t turn our backs on poor children and struggling families now.

Ana Hicks is senior policy analyst at Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid organization that works to find solutions to poverty. It provides independent research and analysis of Maine’s safety net programs, and is a source for nonpartisan information on TANF, MaineCare, General Assistance and other aid programs.

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