May 26, 2020
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Detractors of LePage welfare reforms are wrong: EBT cards don’t fix poverty

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Recent BDN editorials, seemingly ghostwritten by partisan Democratic legislators, accuse the LePage administration and the Department of Health and Human Services of a “grave disservice to Maine’s poorest” and “undermining help for its neediest.”

These are serious and blatantly false accusations. The LePage administration has not sidestepped or turned its back on Maine’s poor. The opposite is true. We reversed decades of failed welfare policy to help move Mainers toward financial independence and self-sufficiency.

We know to be effective in helping people out of poverty we must move beyond the failed policies of just giving out a cash benefit with no time limit or expectations of work.

The welfare system is meant to provide a temporary hand-up to those who need it. This safety net should not solely be handed out in the form of cash — it should encompass a broad range of programs that provide the skills necessary to enter the workforce.

Democratic legislators, welfare lobbyists and this newspaper disagree with that approach. They believe that EBT cards should simply be loaded with more cash benefits and that anything less than expanding welfare hurts poor families.

At the crux of their argument is the annual Kids Count survey data. They chose to cherry-pick the “extreme poverty” data, leaving out key points their readers should know.

In particular, they repeatedly reference an “increase in extreme child poverty” (from an estimated 18,000 in 2013 to 23,000 in 2014) and blame it entirely on a reduction in caseload within the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The reduction in caseload from 15,000 to 5,000 is largely a result of the five-year time limit placed on the program by Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature in 2011.

These erroneous attempts to tie the reduction in TANF cases to the rise in extreme childhood poverty are futile because they ignore, intentionally or by oversight, years of data from the very report they cite.

The highest number of kids in “extreme” childhood poverty in Maine was in 2004, when there were an estimated 26,000 children in that category. The TANF caseload then was 12,634. Today, it’s just over 5,000.

If TANF enrollment drives childhood poverty up or down, why was extreme poverty so high in 2004 when TANF caseloads were almost triple what they are today?

The Kids Count data also show the overall number of Maine children in poverty declined from 54,000 in 2012 to 45,000 in 2013 — the same year most of the TANF caseload reduction occurred.

Other data on the economic status of Maine children shows we are doing well. For example, Maine ranks fifth for “Family & Community.”

Unemployment among parents has dropped from 7 percent to 4 percent under LePage and Maine’s overall unemployment rate has dropped to 3.6 percent — the lowest since 2001.

No one is making the claim that childhood poverty is an issue that should be ignored, but the false accusations that this administration created poverty are unfortunate. It’s an empty talking point that takes away from legitimate conversations about how best to support low-income families in Maine on their path to independence.

Additional negative attacks take aim at the department’s plan for assisting low-income families.

The BDN claims that “the state has reserved those resources ever since the steep drop-off in TANF enrollment began in 2012. But it has reserved them for nobody. The LePage administration has simply let them build up and languish.”

It is true that DHHS has saved $89 million in tax dollars because of welfare reform under LePage. I’m sure that comes as a shock to legislators and liberal media accustomed to Maine government that, prior to this administration, constantly overspent their budgets.

DHHS has developed a thoughtful plan to utilize the TANF funds. Instead of loading more cash on EBT cards, the tax dollars are being used to support initiatives that help people out of poverty.

Some examples of how dollars are being utilized include more support for teen centers, foster care families, transportation assistance and matching savings accounts for low-income families.

This plan allows Maine to support a much larger number of low-income families than those narrowly eligible for the cash benefit. We are creating a more robust safety net that assists people in learning how to work their way out of poverty.

Poverty isn’t solved by handing out more EBT cards with no time limit or work requirement. It’s solved when an individual, sometimes with government’s assistance, develops the skills and approaches necessary to become employed, earn more and live wisely to become completely self-sufficient.

Sam Adolphsen is the chief operating officer at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

 


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