As lawmakers return to the topic of welfare reform this week in Augusta, it’s worth asking: What problem are they trying to solve?
By entertaining proposals to erect barriers before those in poverty can qualify for help and impose restrictions on how they can use their benefits, it appears the problem to solve is one of curtailing fraud that has proven to be far from widespread and keeping those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from lavishing their meager sums of cash assistance ($485 per month at most for a single-parent, two-child family) on out-of-state vacations, tattoos, casino table games, cigarettes and alcohol.
What policymakers should be tackling with welfare system reform is the challenge of making the assistance programs Maine has more effective so low-income residents have a better chance at gaining stable employment and rising out of poverty.
At least one piece of legislation up for a hearing on Tuesday tries to tackle that more consequential problem — one of just a handful of constructive bills in a sea of unproductively punitive measures.
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, has a proposal to ease the welfare cliff — the situation in which welfare recipients immediately lose assistance when their wages rise beyond the eligibility level. In some circumstances, the immediate drop-off in assistance means that getting a raise or more hours at work translates into an overall drop in income when cash assistance ends. That built-in disincentive undermines a core principle of the two-decade-old TANF program: an emphasis on work.
Take a single mother of two who enrolls in TANF in March while she’s not working. She gets a 30-hour-per-week job two months later at $7.50 per hour when the summer tourist season begins. Under current rules, she would go from receiving the maximum $485-per-month grant to receiving $190 plus her work income. Later, if her boss scheduled her for two more hours per week, her income would rise to the point at which she would lose her TANF grant. Her total monthly income would drop more than $125, paradoxically, for working more.
Under Gattine’s bill, LD 1268, she’d have more of a cushion to adjust to a life without assistance. She wouldn’t lose any part of her aid for the first two months of work. After that, her cash assistance would drop to $261. Better yet, if she started working more, her TANF grant would fall incrementally, but her total income would continue to rise with her salary.
Maine would join 16 other states and Washington, D.C., in easing the welfare cliff in a similar fashion — by raising the amount of allowable income someone can earn in order to keep receiving TANF once he or she has qualified.
Funds for the increased assistance would come out of the $78.1 million Maine receives annually from the federal government to pay for TANF, which the state does not spend entirely on assistance.
To be sure, the system proposed in Gattine’s bill doesn’t solve all of TANF’s problems, especially on the administrative side. Even if a parent continues to qualify for TANF, she might find it easier to drop the small amount of assistance completely once she finds work because of the work involved with remaining qualified. (To that end, Gattine’s bill proposes new “navigator” services at the Department of Health and Human Services so recipients don’t find TANF and its requirements so cumbersome.)
Gattine’s bill also would end a policy that more abruptly cuts off assistance in two-parent families, effectively eliminating a marriage disincentive codified in law. One other change is a provision to make child care assistance retroactive, so a working parent who enrolls his or her children at day care before being declared eligible for assistance can apply that help to past bills.
Gov. Paul LePage also has said he’s at work on a proposal to ease the welfare cliff, setting up a debate focused on competing approaches to genuinely improving TANF. If this year’s welfare reform debate can take a substantive rather than punitive tack, that would be a promising start to helping more Mainers put poverty behind them.