When it became clear earlier this year that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services had quietly accrued a $110 million balance in the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the department claimed it had a plan to spend the money.
But since news of the $110 million balance came out, Maine’s TANF balance has only grown. Maine recorded $155.5 million in unspent federal TANF funds at the end of the last state fiscal year on June 30, according to an accounting by the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review.
TANF provides a small amount of cash assistance and work support to low-income families. Since May 2012, when a five-year lifetime limit on TANF took effect, the number of Maine families receiving TANF has dropped 62 percent. And since Maine receives the same amount in federal funds each year to pay for the program — $78.1 million — and has no obligation to spend the money within a designated timeframe, the TANF balance has grown as Maine has spent progressively less on assistance.
In June, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew described her department’s overall strategy with the TANF grant.
“What we’ve done is to maximize our available resources through the TANF block grant,” she said. “It is a block grant to the state, which means it affords the state the flexibility. We are in fact supporting more families other than just those who are receiving benefits.”
If that’s the case, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has accomplished some feat — helping Maine’s low-income families in a meaningful way while spending little of the money earmarked to help them.
But there’s little indication Maine’s poorest — including its poorest kids — are receiving meaningful assistance that can help them escape poverty.
Between 2010 and 2014, the number of Maine children living in extreme poverty — in households with incomes of less than half the federal poverty level (about $10,000 for a family of three) — increased by 35 percent while the number nationally fell, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center.
Between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of Maine public school students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches grew to 48 percent from 43 percent, according to the Maine Department of Education. While the number of Maine public school students falls, the number of students from low-income families is on the rise.
Maine ranks first in New England and 12th nationally for the percentage of its residents who are food insecure.
And national experts who track child well-being have taken note. The Annie E. Casey Foundation this year ranked Maine 17th in the nation for overall child well-being, down five slots from its No. 12 ranking the previous year. In New England, only Rhode Island had a lower rank.
To be sure, the Department of Health and Human Services has started to spend some of the state’s TANF funds in new ways. For example, in order to pay for its annual contracts with domestic violence resource agencies located throughout the state, the Department of Health and Human Services has replaced state funds appropriated by lawmakers with TANF funds. Mayhew also has spoken of using TANF to fund child welfare programs traditionally paid for out of state funds or other accounts.
In other words, as more Maine children start off their lives in poverty, much of the state’s plan for spending TANF money involves simply using a large stash of federal money to pay for services previously paid for by the state — all while the state’s core assistance program withers away.
Gov. Paul LePage’s administration should be embarrassed that, under its watch, the number of children living in poverty is on the upswing, and it should double down on a serious strategy for combating childhood poverty.
Alas, it’s a pipe dream to expect the LePage administration to show the same commitment to cutting poverty as it does to cutting taxes and undermining assistance programs.