When the news broke last month that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services had improperly redirected at least $7.8 million in federal welfare funds meant for children and families to pay for services for elderly and disabled adults, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration could have responded professionally: By considering the findings and looking into what went wrong.
But it would have been too optimistic to expect anything resembling reflection and integrity, especially when the topic is public assistance.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew instead doubled down on defending her department’s misdeed, uncovered by the Bangor Daily News.
“This is a comprehensive approach to addressing both our vulnerable young families and to support the needs of our elderly,” Mayhew told reporters on June 23 in Biddeford. “I would truly like to understand why the Bangor Daily News is opposed to meeting those objectives.”
Mayhew, in her disingenuous attempt to discredit the BDN’s findings, also attacked the integrity of those who have had to rely on the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF provides a small amount of monthly assistance to low-income families with children along with supports aimed at helping the adults in those families find and keep jobs. In the past four years, Maine’s TANF caseload has fallen more than 60 percent, and the state has built up a $110 million TANF balance from federal funds it simply hasn’t spent.
“There were higher poverty rates for children,” Mayhew said, “when all this money was simply going out in the form of a cash benefit to be used in strip clubs, to be used in gambling facilities, to be used to bail someone out of jail.”
Mayhew is wrong. It’s unclear what timeframe she’s referring to in her statement, but Maine’s childhood poverty rate is higher than it was a decade ago. In 2014, according to the KIDS COUNT database, 19 percent of Maine children lived in poverty, compared with 16.7 percent in 2005. In the past year alone, Maine’s national ranking for overall child well-being slipped to 17th from 12th in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS COUNT data book.
What’s especially troubling is Mayhew’s characterization of those who depend on TANF. Unfortunately, it’s a characterization that has driven changes to Maine law: This spring, lawmakers from both parties agreed to bar TANF recipients from spending their benefits on tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, porn magazines and more. They based the change on little more than anecdote.
Instead of coming together to do something constructive for the state’s poorest families, the LePage administration has led the state down a path of impugning the neediest.
TANF offers the poorest families in Maine a maximum of $485 per month for a family of three — an amount that doesn’t even reach 30 percent of a poverty-level income, contrary to the impression Mayhew conveys of a lavish welfare benefit.
Meanwhile, there’s convincing evidence that it would actually be worthwhile to offer the state’s neediest families more money.
Poverty takes a major toll on a child. The research is well accepted showing poverty has a negative effect on a child’s physical and mental health, academic achievement and long-term prospects. Growing up in a poor family imposes toxic stress on a developing brain, and society at large ultimately experiences the consequences of childhood poverty: diminished economic contributions, higher crime, increased health care spending and continued poverty.
The simplest way to turn around that situation is money. Years of research have shown that improvements in a household’s financial condition can lead to improved IQ scores among children; less stress; and improved, long-term educational attainment. A 2015 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that, aside from the health and educational benefits, increases in household income also can cause families to move to higher-income areas where residents have higher education levels.
In other words, low-income parents, by and large, can be trusted to make good decisions for their families with additional resources. Given its $110 million unspent TANF balance, it’s clear what Maine — and the LePage administration — could do to actually help Maine kids overcome poverty.