When it comes to helping the state’s poorest, the LePage administration’s mantra can generally be summed up this way: Cut off state assistance, and struggling people will automatically be better off.
The administration tried to sell that message last year when it published a report showing that about 7,000 adults who lost food stamps due to newly imposed work requirements saw their aggregate wages rise by 114 percent within a year.
Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew touted the numbers as an unqualified success, ignoring the fact that only about a third of those who lost food stamps were working, and that average annual earnings for this entire group worked out to about $4,800. Without work, and without food assistance, many could be found at their local food pantries week after week.
In her final days on the job, Mayhew tried to make the argument again. The LePage administration released a similar report, this one arguing that a 2011 state policy that cut off cash assistance to thousands of children and adults who depended on the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program actually made those families better off.
“After Implementation of Time Limits, Former TANF Recipients Experienced Increase in Wages,” read the news release from Mayhew’s Department of Health and Human Services, which boasted that those who found work after they were kicked off TANF experienced a 240 percent increase in earnings.
“We are seeing positive outcomes following these reforms — higher levels of employment and average incomes among those working are now above the Federal Poverty Level — this is what we must continue to push for in Maine,” Mayhew said in the news release.
But, as with last year’s food stamp numbers, a closer look at these numbers paints a picture of kids — nearly 15,000 of whom have lost TANF over the past five years — and parents who are struggling to get by.
While Mayhew tries to make the case that those people were more likely to be employed after their assistance ended and that they earned wages above the poverty level, not even the LePage administration’s report paints such a picture of success.
The LePage administration’s report highlights the fate of 1,856 people whose TANF benefits ended in the first half of 2012 as a five-year lifetime limit on TANF took effect. Comparing a yearlong period between 2011 and 2012 — the year before the state started cutting off benefits — and a yearlong period between 2015 and 2016, the report states that the number reporting a Maine wage record jumped 84 percent.
But such a statement obscures the larger truth. It appears that few people who lost assistance managed to maintain employment consistently, and the wages they earned were far from sufficient to help them escape poverty.
The report’s comparison of two individual quarters — three months in 2012 and three months in 2015 — illustrate this case.
In the second quarter of 2012, just 384 of the 1,856 people whose benefits ended — slightly more than 20 percent — had a wage record. In the second quarter of 2015, 599 had a wage record, which means that more than two-thirds still lacked employment.
As for the gain, the report states, “[f]urther analysis would be required to identify the causal factors….” But, from the low overall employment levels to low wages, there’s little to celebrate in these numbers.
The 599 people who happened to have work in the second quarter of 2015 earned, on average, $3,152 in those three months. Assuming the employment even lasted a year, the annual wage would be $12,608, far from a comfortable living in any part of Maine, and more than $3,000 below the federal poverty level for a two-person household. (By definition, a family eligible for TANF must have at least one child.)
The bottom line? A family that was struggling enough to rely on TANF in the first place was still struggling without the help of TANF after the state cut off the family’s benefits.
While Mayhew calls that “what we must continue to push for in Maine,” it’s a far cry from what Maine’s struggling families need in order to put poverty behind them and allow their kids to grow up in a household where they don’t worry about going hungry.