Earlier this week, the legislature voted on a number of measures that addressed our state’s anti-poverty programs. Most notably, we supported a bill that banned recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from using their benefits on alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, bail and strip clubs.
Make no mistake. We believe in our anti-poverty programs. TANF is a last resort for Maine families going through a rough patch. More than nine in 10 of these families are headed by women, and one in four people is escaping a domestic violence situation, according to a 2010 study of TANF households. Every TANF recipient has a family with children.
There is undeniable evidence that thousands of families have used TANF to get back on their feet. And the overwhelming number of TANF recipients use their benefits appropriately and temporarily.
As Democrats, we stand strong in supporting programs such as TANF that help people help themselves.
But we know that these programs must be effective and accountable to be successful. There is agreement among Democrats, Republicans and the governor that TANF benefits should be used for a family’s rent, food, laundry and gas money — the essentials — and not toward alcohol and cigarettes.
It is for those reasons that we voted to ban the use of EBT cards on the “prohibited five.”
And so what happened next may surprise you.
The bill passed in the Senate, but surprisingly not a single Republican supported the measure to ban the “prohibited five” — even though it was nearly identical to a bill sponsored by Gov. Paul LePage. The only difference between the two bills was that the Democratic-sponsored measure did not have the same penalties proposed by the governor.
Both proposals offered a three-tier penalty system. With the Democrats’ plan, if a TANF recipient purchased a banned item, the first offense resulted in a warning and mandatory education about the program. The second offense resulted in a three-month suspension from TANF, meaning no benefits for the adult. The third offense suspended benefits for six months, again for the adult only.
The governor’s plan offered the following: a one-year suspension for the first offense, a two-year suspension for the second offense, and a lifetime ban for the third offense.
We felt that the governor’s penalties were too harsh. TANF recipients should use their benefits appropriately, but we want families who need a little help getting over life’s hurdles to succeed. Penalties such as the ones proposed by the governor only serve to be punitive — and do nothing to help people recover from their circumstance.
Perhaps this difference in approach is rooted in our outlook. As Democrats, we believe that people who need a hand-up deserve not only our help but our respect and compassion. We start with the premise that everyone wants to do better, that people want to work and that Mainers are uniquely proud people who would rather do anything than accept a handout. The safety net is a vital tool to give folks another chance.
The governor’s approach is vindictive. He is disdainful of people who happen to need a little extra help. He turns the word “welfare” into a political weapon to attack all spending he doesn’t agree with and a scarlet letter to affix on the poor people we all represent.
The reality is that the number of Mainers who are homeless or living in poverty is increasing. Maine ranks at the bottom of the pack for private-sector job growth. Too many Mainers are working harder for less, and thousands are without a job or are working two and three jobs just to try and make ends meet. Many still can’t afford to gas up their cars or keep their homes warm.
We must continue to talk about the state’s role in supporting its neediest residents who are trying to get back on their feet. That’s exactly the conversation we in the legislature should be having.
But the truth is, it’s easier to score political points by railing against “welfare” recipients than it is to reform the system to make sure it works as it’s intended.
It’s easier to vilify the poor than it is to solve the problems of job creation.
This was a real opportunity to make a thoughtful and compassionate change in an anti-poverty program, but the governor chose to continue his war on the poor, with no real solutions for Maine’s anemic economy.
As the legislative session nears a close, it is our hope that LePage realizes what matters more is walking the walk. With bottom of the pack rankings in job creation, he’d do right by Maine people to focus his efforts on growing our economy because we all know the best path out of poverty is a job.
Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is Maine Senate president; Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is Senate majority leader; and Anne Haskell, D-Portland, is assistant Senate majority leader.