As I watch the 2014 legislative session come to a close, I am relieved more damage was not done by the rash of supposed “welfare reform” bills that were introduced quite late in the game by Gov. Paul LePage. The spirit of the bills was punitive, not constructive, and, based on my two decades of research on families receiving welfare in Maine, totally misguided. The purpose of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is to help families with children who are in crisis and to provide parents the support they need to become economically independent.
None of the four bills introduced by the governor contributed to those goals. Rather, they assumed that people seeking assistance should be viewed with suspicion — their motives and actions constantly examined and questioned. Not only are these families paying the price of poverty, they are now bearing these false characterizations loaded with prejudice and discrimination.
While thankfully these more recent bills were defeated, back in 2011 one of the governor’s first welfare “reform” bills did pass. It established a 60-month time limit on the receipt of TANF. LePage heralds this law as a great success. If success is measured by a drop in the number of TANF recipients, then indeed the governor is right: Since the law took effect in May 2012, more than 3,000 families and more than 6,000 children no longer get help from this program. But if success is measured differently — by the number of families that found jobs or the improved well-being of their children — then the conclusion must be very different. By these measures, the governor’s “reform” has been a decided and tragic failure.
Six months after this law was implemented in the fall of 2012, I surveyed 54 families who had lost their benefits due to time limits in an effort to see how they were faring under the so-called reform. I found a high level of disability and a low rate of high school completion. Hardships befell nearly all families, including evictions, loss of basic utilities and not having enough food to feed their children. More than 40 percent of the families in the study had no income at all at the time of the survey.
Two-thirds of the survey respondents in 2012 gave permission to be contacted again for future studies, and despite loss of housing and phone service, I was successful in finding and conducting in-depth interviews with 13 of those families one year later — in fall 2013. The findings from this qualitative study, published last month, raise serious questions about the success of this “reform” measure.
Only five of the 13 study participants were employed, and only two of those held full-time jobs. The average wage of all these working parents was only $9.25 per hour. Eleven study participants either had disabilities themselves or were caring for disabled family members. Only three secured disability benefits; the others either lived without income, with applications for disability still pending in several cases, or were employed part-time despite work limitations related to disability.
The hardships experienced by these families continued to be severe — nearly one-third lost their housing. One consequence of this homelessness was separation of children from parents — something that occurred for three families. The story of Wendy (not her real name) and her family illustrates the very dire consequences of TANF time limits.
Wendy was employed at the time her benefits were cut in spring 2012. She not only lost her TANF benefits for herself and her three very young children, she also lost the child care and transportation assistance she was receiving through the TANF work program, ASPIRE. Without that support, she was unable to maintain her job, and with no income she lost her housing.
At the time of the 2012 study, she and her children were living in a homeless shelter where two of her children had contracted pneumonia. One year later, the Department of Health and Human Services had taken her children into state custody because she did not have stable housing. Wendy was sleeping on a friend’s couch and was trying desperately to do what she could to get her children back. The effects of this destitution and traumatic separation from their mother on the development of these three preschool-age children will be long-lasting.
Wendy’s story is just one among many of how the welfare time-limit law has caused extreme hardships for some of Maine’s most vulnerable families. Data from DHHS indicate that more than half the parents losing TANF due to time limits lack a high school education, severely limiting their employability. Moreover, we know from a 2010 study of a representative sample of Maine families on TANF that nearly 90 percent of those who receive benefits for 60 months or longer have a work-limiting disability or are caring for a family member with a disability.
Real reform should not drive families deeper into poverty, as I have seen in so many of the families that I interviewed. Real reform should instead be measured by how many families and children are lifted out of poverty, so they can live independently and with greater security. Solutions that raise families out of poverty are not difficult to imagine. They are what we all want for ourselves and our children — a good education, access to health care to stay healthy, a job that pays enough to support a family. These are the reforms that work. These are the reforms that will ensure a better future for Maine and all of its children.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.