As Mary Mayhew’s campaign for governor picks up, she’ll inevitably tout something she characterizes as an unqualified success from her six years at the helm of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services: the steep decline in the number of people receiving cash assistance, and what happened to them after they lost their state help.
In her final days before leaving DHHS in May to launch her gubernatorial run, Mayhew touted the release of a LePage administration report 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 DHHS news release, 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 a newly published paper from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers a fresh reminder of just how little success there is for Mayhew and the LePage administration to celebrate. The organization’s paper offers a damning analysis that demonstrates how flawed and hollow the LePage administration’s claims are.
While Mayhew and the LePage administration try to make the case that ending small amounts of cash assistance and help finding work for low-income families with children results in more adults working, and for greater pay, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis points out the deception.
“The methodologically flawed report cherry picks data and omits key findings — such as how 1 in 3 of the terminated families never had earnings during the study period — to position the time limit as a positive policy change,” writes author Tazra Mitchell in the paper published Tuesday. “It hides facts that show that most families that reached the time limit have not been able to replace the cash assistance they lost with income from work, putting the children in these families at great risk of experiencing high levels of deprivation and stress, which have lifelong negative consequences.”
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, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, the LePage administration report obscures the unpleasant reality that most of the families that lost benefits didn’t find consistent work: “Approximately 2 in 3 of all terminated families, on average, did not work in any given quarter in the fourth year after the state implemented the policy.”
And the administration’s selective statistics pay no heed to the wellbeing of the families who lost their TANF lifeline. “More than half of those not working in any given quarter in the fourth year had no earnings from work during the entire study period,” the center’s paper reads. “This means that once state officials cut them from TANF, they had neither TANF cash assistance nor earnings from employment over the next four years.”
The center’s paper highlights numerous analytical shortcomings that would disqualify the LePage administration’s report from being taken seriously, in addition to the administration report’s tendency to cherry pick favorable numbers and obscure the broader truth.
The overall point is this: As Mayhew’s gubernatorial campaign proceeds, she’ll have to answer for a record at DHHS that can be portrayed favorably only with the help of reports and claims that obscure the full truth. Meanwhile, thousands of the state’s poorest who lost access to help they relied on to get by will likely continue to eke out a sub-poverty living, month by month, and their children will pay the price.