The Maine Children’s Alliance opposes the bills being touted by their proponents as “welfare reform” – LD 1842, LD 1815, LD 1820, and LD 1822 – because we are well aware that TANF, at its core, is a program intended to protect and improve the lives of Maine children. The bills will not improve the lives of these children. They will not protect their families from homelessness and hunger. In fact, these proposed changes to the TANF program will move children into deeper poverty at a time when far too many children are already growing up poor in Maine.
Finding real solutions to poverty is in the best interest of these children and it is in the best interest of our State. Preparing Maine for a prosperous future begins with recognizing that our youngest citizens must get what they need in order to become healthy adults who will strengthen our communities and build our economy. At a time when child poverty is on the rise, lawmakers should be focused on policies that reverse these troubling trends.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about “welfare” reform and the need to reform public benefit programs. But real reform involves an honest effort to fix real problems. Some of that rhetoric promotes the view that the TANF program makes people poor – that somehow it is creating a culture of dependency with no work ethic. In our view nothing could be further from the case. The TANF program is not what creates poverty – it is what prevents children living in deep poverty from going without shelter and basic needs like diapers, heat and the many needed over the counter medicines not covered by any other source when they’re sick. TANF can fill the gap resulting from low wages and also give parents the tools they need to get and keep a job through the ASPIRE program.
Reforming the TANF program should involve improving it in some way so that it more effectively helps people leave poverty behind. That is what the program is intended to do. Efforts are already underway at DHHS to improve TANF so that it does a better job breaking down barriers to employment and opening up opportunities to education and training. This is what will lead to a better future for low-income families struggling in low-wage jobs without benefits or flexibility. We should be focused on creating more opportunity for these families to get ahead. Instead of opening up opportunity for parents, and subsequently their children, these bills will close doors and either trap these parents in the low wage job market without needed services like child care and transportation, unable to sustain employment or worse still, drive them into more dire circumstances.
LD 1842, proposed as “reform”, would eliminate the Parents as Scholars program – the program modeled around the country as a route out of poverty for low income families with children. It would eliminate “good cause” so that families will lose benefits if they are unable to meet the work requirements even if their circumstances make it impossible for them to meet them. LD 1815 would make it harder for families to receive TANF by requiring an up-front screening for job readiness performed by staff that is unqualified to make this assessment and would then require people to apply for 3 jobs before they could get help even if they were unable to do these jobs. We know from lessons learned in other states that up-front work search requirements lead to drastic caseload reductions because they make it harder to access needed help. LD 1822 and LD 1820 would impose restrictions on EBT cards that would be both difficult and costly to administer. Not only do these proposals distract us from working to address the real and growing problem of child poverty, they also unfairly stigmatize low-income families and work to fuel divisive rhetoric. It would be a shame to spend time and energy on overhauling the EBT system to address the small percentage of improper EBT card use that exists (less than 1% according to DHHS numbers) when we could be directing that time and energy toward lifting the children who rely on TANF out of poverty permanently, helping them become the productive citizens we will need for the future prosperity of the State.