December 14, 2019
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The $7.17 problem: Democrats shouldn’t join in LePage’s welfare ‘reform’ foolishness

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
This is a sample photo EBT card. In April 2014, the state of Maine launched a test program in Bangor for a new system of putting photos on EBT cards.

Gov. Paul LePage on Monday unveiled his “welfare reform” agenda for the legislative session — largely a collection of recycled measures he couldn’t get past a Democratic Legislature last year. The measures throw up hurdles before someone in poverty can qualify for assistance, impose restrictions on how they can use the benefits once they’ve qualified and toughen the penalties for not complying.

Yes, it’s welfare reform silly season again in Augusta, when changes to public assistance programs that are punitive rather than constructive are considered “reform.”

Even Democrats are hopping on board this year, responding to a political reality in which Republicans have capitalized on the unproven notion that abuse of Maine’s welfare programs is rampant.

Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the House Democratic leader, has proposed LD 1144, which would prohibit Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients from spending their cash benefits on tobacco products, liquor and imitation liquor, gambling and lottery tickets.

“It’s really to have that discussion around, what is the appropriate penalty?” McCabe said. “You can’t just establish these rules and then kick someone off the program because they don’t understand it.”

McCabe’s bill, which has seven Democratic cosponsors, might be less punitive and more education-oriented than LePage’s, but the proposal still has no business passing.

When Democrats sign onto these restrictions, they legitimize LePage’s unsupported narrative that the most pressing problem in Maine’s welfare programs is participant abuse of taxpayer-funded benefits.

It’s worthwhile to think just for a minute about the notion that TANF participants are commonly lavishing their cash benefits on cigarettes, alcohol, casino table games, lottery tickets and tattoos (which aren’t included in McCabe’s bill but are in LePage’s). As a trend among some of the state’s poorest residents, it doesn’t add up.

In Maine, the maximum cash benefit for a single-parent, two-child family is $485 per month. That’s 30 percent of the federal poverty level. And the cash allowance hasn’t changed for more than a decade; with inflation taken into account, the benefit was worth 22 percent less in 2013 than it was in 1996.

And it’s not as if that small amount is supplementing a flush income stream. In order to receive the maximum benefit, that family of three can earn virtually no extra income. In order to receive any assistance, that family would be able to earn no more than $13,392 per year. Meanwhile, market-value rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Bangor area, for instance, is $660 per month, or more than $7,900 annually, according to the Maine State Housing Authority.

In other words, there’s little cash to lavish on anything — much less casino table games.

Then, it’s worthwhile to consider what it would take to prohibit specific types of purchases using EBT cards (disregarding the fact that the TANF benefit can be converted to cash, then spent on anything).

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services has already started blocking EBT access at ATMs in or near bars, liquor stores, gambling facilities and adult entertainment establishments to comply with a 2012 federal law and a similar state law. That’s a process that, in other states, has proven cumbersome, time-intensive, inexact (Internet searches are often the best resource state officials have to pinpoint prohibited establishments) and nearly impossible to effectively enforce.

Prohibiting individual types of purchases, regardless of the establishment, goes a step further. In Massachusetts, a 2012 statute outlaws the use of EBT cards for a list of purchases longer than McCabe’s proposed one: alcohol, tobacco, sexually explicit material, firearms, tattoos, piercings, jewelry and bail bonds. “No EBT system can block the purchase of specific items,” reads an August 2013 report from the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, meaning the department had to resort to a manual enforcement system and a fraud hotline.

In two years, that enforcement mechanism had produced six leads alleging the purchase of prohibited items with EBT cards. The state auditor’s office dismissed three of them and was still investigating two in August 2013. The Department of Transitional Assistance had started to recover the remaining claim: $7.17 for a tobacco product purchase.

And to what end? Rather than constructing an elaborately inefficient enforcement structure, Maine’s limited resources would be better spent on proven means to help people escape poverty.

 



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