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Critics Question Maine Governor's Welfare Claims
09/13/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

Gov. Paul LePage is touting a decrease in the number of Mainers enrolled in TANF - the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program - as evidence that his welfare reform package passed in 2011 is a resounding success. But critics say many of the initiatives LePage calls reforms have not taken effect. And, as Mal Leary reports, they say reduced caseloads represent a shift, not a reduction.

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In June of 2011, the TANF caseload was just under 15,000 clients. In June of this year, it was down to just under 9,000. Gov. LePage and some Republican lawmakers say that is evidence that their welfare reforms are working.

They've tightened eligibility for benefits, set a five-year limit on the amount of time a person can receive welfare benefits, delayed benefits for some immigrants and required that welfare recipients who have been convicted of a drug-related felony submit to drug tests. The state has also hired more welfare fraud investigators.

Here is the governor in his weekly radio address: "While some disabled Mainers sat on the waiting list for services, others who were capable of working collected benefits through fraud. That is wrong. We need to help struggling Mainers to earn success not to learn dependency."

Critics say the only change that has been fully implemented is the eligibility change. Lewiston Sen. Margaret Craven co-chairs the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.

"I don't agree that people that are using drugs and that sort of thing should be wasting public funds for their lifestyle, but on the other hand it is not truthful to say that it is saving money because we haven't even started the program yet," Craven says.

DHHS acknowledges that, once implemented, testing will only affect a handful of recipients. So will the delay in benefits for legal non-citizens. As for the eight additional fraud inspectors that were hired in May, they are still in training. And Craven says even if there are increased reports of alleged cases of fraud, it doesn't necessarily mean investigators will find it.

House Speaker Mark Eves says it's clear to him that the LePage administration's claims have more to do with politics and less to do with making the system better.

"What the governor is engaging in is an ideological fight. He is playing to his base," Eves says. "We are coming up on an election year. He's going right back to the script he started with, and I think people are going to see it for what it is. It doesn't pass the straight-face test."

Eves says the reason the caseload has gone down is because fewer people are eligible for the federally-funded program. Instead, he says those individuals are now going to local cities and towns for help under the General Assistance Program that is mostly paid for by local property taxpayers.

What Eves and some low-income advocates say is needed is training and schooling for TANF recipients so they can get the skills they need to get a job. "So the claims around reform - it's really a failure on the governor's part not to recognize what struggling families need to climb out of poverty and in to the middle class," Eves says.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew acknowledges that several of the elements in the reform legislation are still being implemented. But she rejects the argument that the administration is simply trying to reduce the numbers of people who receive TANF. She says savings achieved by reducing fraud will bolster efforts to help those in the program find work.

"We started a process more than a year ago convening groups around the state to look at, with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor, how we, across our three agencies, can do a better job in support of individuals who need TANF assistance," Mayhew says.

Mayhew says most of those seeking help through TANF want to work, not take a handout from the government. But Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a low-income advocacy group, says, so far, the welfare changes have not helped those on TANF get a job.

"That caseload has dropped precipitously, it has dropped largely because of policy changes that have made that number of people ineligible," Hastedt says, "and there is very little evidence that the folks that lost their TANF have actually gotten employed."

In his weekly radio address, Gov. LePage said more welfare reforms are needed. Chelsea Rep. Deborah Sanderson, the Republican lead on the Health and Human Services Committee, agrees with the governor. She says one proposal would require TANF recipients to keep receipts to show how they spend their cash benefits.

"If someone wants to, or needs to, have this kind of public assistance to order to get by, I don't think having an accountability measure in place is too much to ask," Sanderson says.

LePage has not indicated what further changes he wants to make in the TANF program, but whatever they are, they will likely provoke lots of debate in a year when lawmakers and the governor are up for election.

Graphic:  Maine House Republican Office


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