Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is finalizing a deal to outsource the job training and placement aspects of the state’s cash assistance program. The nonprofit, Manhattan-based Fedcap proposes to take over Maine’s Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment, or ASPIRE, program for $62.6 million over six years.
We hope Maine arrives at an arrangement with Fedcap that results in a program that promotes not only efficiency in administration but also provides the appropriate kind of help so low-income Mainers receiving assistance can escape poverty.
But we have doubts on both counts.
When the LePage administration announced its ASPIRE privatization plans last winter, it did so without a convincing rationale. The administration never made it clear what a contractor would do more effectively or more efficiently than the state could by keeping the program in house.
The administration’s request for vendor proposals emphasized the need for Maine to meet federally required work participation rates for adults receiving assistance. (Under federal law, at least 50 percent of adult recipients must be working, receiving training, attending school or volunteering at least 30 hours per week, and states face a 90 percent requirement for adults in two-parent families.) But Maine already is meeting the 50 percent requirement, and no state meets the 90 percent threshold for two-parent families, which applies to only 2.7 percent of Maine’s entire assistance caseload. Maine can likely find ways to significantly reduce or eliminate any federal penalties it faces for not meeting participation thresholds.
Plus, an emphasis on boosting work participation rates doesn’t equate with a boost in employment — much less stable employment — and a reduction in poverty. A collection of studies evaluating the impact of work requirements for welfare recipients across the country over the past two decades consistently found little impact on employment levels in the short term, virtually no long-term impact and few examples of poverty reduction.
“Over the long term, the most successful programs supported individuals who were subject to the work requirements in efforts to improve their education or build their skills, rather than simply requiring them to work or find a job,” LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote in a June compilation of these studies.
But a review of Fedcap’s Maine proposal reveals an emphasis on work for assistance recipients regardless of type, pay level and whether post-secondary education through Maine’s successful Parents as Scholars program — which supports assistance recipients as they seek two- or four-year college degrees and which LePage has attempted to eliminate — would be a better fit.
“We embrace work and believe wholeheartedly that (a) work is good whether it is paid or unpaid, (b) that everyone can do something to move forward and that (c) welfare is not the best society can offer families and children,” the Fedcap proposal reads.
For a program that should be about helping people escape poverty, Fedcap’s job training and placement program, as outlined in its bid proposal, is remarkably light on the intervention that can make the most consequential difference in someone’s life and help her escape the seasonal, low-wage economy: education. The most common vocational training Fedcap outlines lasts six to 12 weeks, and the longest educational pursuit the proposal appears to allow lasts up to a year — not enough time for an assistance recipient to attain a degree.
Yet a state Department of Labor analysis released Monday clearly shows the power of a degree: In 2015, those with an associate degree earned nearly 21 percent more than the state’s average wage; bachelor’s degree holder earnings were 56 percent higher than the average. Over the next decade, the analysis shows, job growth will be concentrated in occupations that require a post-secondary credential.
On the efficiency side of the ledger, we have difficulty seeing how a contractor’s plan to rent 16 new offices instead of use existing state offices in all of the same cities and hire 140 employees to replace 81 state positions represents an optimal use of taxpayer dollars.
It would, however, continue a LePage administration pattern of not allowing sound policy to get in the way of its ideologically driven plans for Maine’s assistance programs.