Smart Welfare Reform: Politics Continue to Get in the Way of Progress

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Over the last 5 years, extreme child poverty in Maine has increased by 50%. Maine people are paying attention and they are justifiably alarmed. A series of articles in the Bangor Daily News shed light on the subject as the Legislature debated the issue.

Our state is sitting on $110 million federal TANF dollars intended to help raise families with children out of poverty, yet the Maine Legislature failed to take any action this past session to put those funds to use.

This was not for a lack of trying on the part of some well-intentioned policymakers who introduced legislation to reverse this troubling trend. Unfortunately, these proposals failed to garner the bipartisan support needed to pass in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Legislature considered one bill that would have reduced poverty and increased economic security. LD 1268 sponsored by Representative Gattine of Westbrook would have helped parents overcome barriers to meaningful employment and would have increased stability and opportunity for struggling families. (Click here for more information on LD 1268.)

Another bill--LD 1631 proposed by the Governor would have limited opportunity for parents, making it far harder to participate in the Parents as Scholars program. It would also have nearly eliminated “good cause”, thereby disqualifying TANF families that are unable to work through no fault of their own.  Recognizing the alarming trajectory of deep child poverty, the majority of the Legislature’s Health and Human Service Committee turned that original bill on its head by amending it to call for an investigation of this growing crisis facing Maine children.  (Click here for more information on LD 1631.)  Neither LD 1268 nor the amended LD 1631 passed as they failed to garner bipartisan support.

While legislation that would have reduced deep child poverty did not garner bipartisan support, a bill that sought to punish families for poor purchasing choices did receive support from both sides of the aisle.  LD 1097, which will penalize families for using TANF income support to purchase certain items, became law with the backing of both democrats and republicans. 

Regardless of your view on the need for such a policy change, banning the purchase of lottery tickets, tobacco, liquor, bail, and certain other items with an EBT card will not raise one Maine child out of deep poverty.  In fact, the bill that passed will cut a family’s assistance nearly in half for 3 months the first time a mom buys a scratch ticket in a yearning to “dream a little.”  This will reduce a typical family’s income from $485 to $262 a month, leaving them without money needed to pay the rent.  If a parent breaks the rule twice the family will lose help for a whole year. A third violation will mean the loss of benefits for two years.  With penalties such as these, a $1 infraction could very likely lead to a family becoming homeless. (Click here to see how your representative voted on the product ban bill – an ‘N’ means they opposed the bill).   

While some are celebrating the passage of this bill as “welfare reform,” this policy change falls far short of truly reforming welfare.  It does nothing to create pathways out of poverty for parents who are struggling to find a job or get an education so they can leave poverty behind.  

Most people can agree on many of the solutions needed to reduce child poverty. Increased access to education and training for parents who want to improve their circumstances is a common sense solution to poverty. Yet it was rejected by lawmakers.  A proposal to make public programs more effective and accountable by tracking outcomes and progress was also rejected. Replacing the current one-size-fits-all approach to welfare with a system that targets supports and services based on each family’s circumstances is another common sense solution.  Yet, the legislature rejected this proposal as well.

These are all smart reforms that could have been accomplished with current resources, without any additional dollars. Yet they were not.  It is hard to understand why policymakers did not come together to adopt these common sense solutions to address this growing problem…until you view this within the current political context.

Unfortunately, “welfare” has become a political football that has become more about scoring points than helping families find jobs and raise children out of poverty. Some politicians think the EBT product ban may persuade voters that they are “tough on welfare fraud and abuse”. They fail to understand, however, that while Maine people want an accountable system they also want a balanced approach to welfare reform that focuses first and foremost on creating effective pathways out of poverty for families living on the brink. Sadly, policymakers in Augusta had an opportunity to do just that and they were not able to get it done because politics came first.  

Regardless of our varied political views, most of us believe that government has a responsibility to put federal money that has come to Maine to help poor children to good use, to ensure that these kids have a roof over their heads, enough food to eat, and a fair shot at a bright future. When government officials and policymakers fail to take these steps they are failing to do their job and they are failing all of us. Worst of all, they are failing the 50,000 Maine children living in poverty who will have to wait yet another year for policymakers to come together to do their job. They will have to wait as life only gets harder and their future prospects get bleaker.

Please join us in helping policy makers understand the kind of reform that Maine people really want—reform that will raise families out of poverty and offer Maine children the chance to realize their full potential.  (Click here to get involved!)