Public Comment on the OPEGA Report on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program
Claire Berkowitz, Executive Director of the Maine Children’s Alliance
July 26, 2018
Senator Katz, Rep. Mastraccio and esteemed members of the Government Oversight Committee, my name is Claire Berkowitz and I am the Executive Director of the Maine Children’s Alliance. The mission of our organization is to advocate for sound public policies and promote best practices that improve the lives of Maine children, youth and families.
When we ensure that all children have equal opportunity for healthy growth and development, we are making long-term investments in the future prosperity of our state. If we are to take seriously our role as stewards of the next generation, we must make smart and sustainable commitments to fostering the health and well-being of our youngest neighbors. We know that children’s brains are literally being built in the early years, and it is stable, consistent relationships with caring adults at home and in their communities that are the building materials.
That’s why efficient, wise and timely investments in the early years can pay dividends later in improved health and learning outcomes. But when children and their families who face significant adversity are not provided the support they need to thrive, we are undermining not only their futures, but the future of our state, as well. Therefore, it is imperative that our programs and policies ensure strong foundations for our children’s futures.
When families live in poverty, especially extreme poverty, they experience significant stress and hardship due to a lack of basic necessities, such as stable housing and food, and this trauma extends to their children as well. These adverse childhood experiences can cause toxic stress in young children, resulting in significant negative repercussions for their development and long-term success. We can’t afford to to let this happen in our state.
The overall goal of the TANF Program is to protect the wellbeing of children in need while preparing their parents for financial independence through employment. Since the statutory changes were enacted back in 2012, the Maine Children’s Alliance has been greatly concerned about the decline in the number of our children living in poverty who receive TANF assistance. Our KIDS COUNT data indicates that in 2016 more than twice as many Maine children lived in extreme poverty than received TANF, a shift from 2011 when slightly more children received TANF than were living in extreme poverty.
In Maine, TANF no longer helps even HALF of Maine’s poorest children
Source: KIDS COUNT Data Center (datacenter.kidscount.org)
We used to do better by our children living in poverty in Maine. In 2010, for every 100 Maine children in poverty, 52 received cash assistance from TANF — that is down to just 18 children in 2016. Maine’s “TANF-to-poverty ratio” (TPR) is now lower than the national average on this measure and Maine lost more ground from 2010- 2016 than any other state. Studies in Maine and elsewhere have shown that reducing the number of families who receive TANF by making changes to eligibility and work requirements does not help families enter or return to the workforce. Instead, families suffer severe hardships, including hunger and eviction.i,ii
Only 18 out of 100 children in poverty in Maine receive TANF support, down from 52 in 2010
Source: Maine KIDS COUNT Data (datacenter.kidscount.org) and https://www.cbpp.org/research/family-income-support/policy-brief-tanf-reaching-few-poor-families
While the OPEGA report assesses what happened in terms of the decisions made regarding the statutory changes and administration of TANF funds during this time-period, the question that we are most concerned about at the Alliance is not adequately addressed in the report. We want to know what happened to the children who were no longer able to access basic assistance because of the changes to the TANF program since 2012.
Are these families thriving after exiting from the TANF program? While a recent report from DHHS claims that employment and earnings grew and the families subject to the time limit are faring betteriii, analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the state report ignores the fact that most terminated families were unable to replace the steady income they received from TANF with earningsiv.
So again I ask, what happened to the children in these families who went from at least having TANF support to no income at all? Are more children homeless or receiving their meals from soup kitchens? Maine ranks 34th in the country in childhood food insecurity, so we know our kids are hungry. Are any of these children victims of neglect and involved in our child welfare system as a result of not having their basic needs met? How has the withholding of cash assistance from children who need the support shifted costs to other parts of government – our child welfare system, our schools, our physical and behavioral health care systems? How much of TANF funds are now being used to supplant general fund expenditures?
TANF is the only federal program that provides cash assistance to the poorest Maine families. In addition, the goal and focus of TANF needs to address the costs of child care, transportation, and helping parents get reliable, good-paying jobs. While we understand that a portion of the unspent TANF funds will be used to pay for much needed increases in the cash benefits received by families, we believe the surplus should be spent on effective programs that will have a direct and measurable impact on reducing childhood poverty, such as:
* Improve screening and assessment of TANF families to identify health conditions and other barriers to employment;
* Implement standards and procedures to ensure more effective administration of “hardship” extensions to the TANF time limit;
* Establish a hardship extension for those reaching 60 months who are still unable to find employment through no fault of their own;
* Transparent and measurable outcomes to show efficacy of work training programs.
Maine’s future rests with how we invest in our children. By removing families from TANF support based on strict time limits and sanctions we have helped to create a system in which children will face adverse circumstances that will affect them for the rest of their lives. And in the long run, this will cost the state more money. Instead, we must begin to understand and invest our TANF dollars accordingly, through an understanding that by supporting families, we support the children who are the foundation of our future success, and who are counting on our commitment to ensuring that foundation is a strong one.