Maine’s Governor Unveils ‘Tough Love’ Welfare Reform Proposals

CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

On Monday, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) unveiled a series of bills to reform the state’s welfare system, saying that he wants “education and ‘tough love'” from the system, the Portland Press Herald reports.

The proposals would do a variety of things to the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or welfare) program, many of them aimed at eliminating what LePage sees as fraud. One would add recipients’ photographs to their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, and another would ban the cards’ use for tobacco, liquor, gambling, and bail. Others would add a work search requirement before someone could become eligible, prohibit using the card outside of the state, and eliminate a job training program for parents who pursue college degrees.

LePage acknowledged that it would cost money to administer the new reforms, although didn’t assign a dollar figure to them. “Nothing in life is free,” he said. The Press Herald notes, “Past efforts to restrict EBT transactions have encountered administrative and cost obstacles.”

LePage’s announcement comes after his failed attempt to unearth massive welfare fraud. While he said the data he released exposed “a larger problem than initially thought,” in reality they showed that transactions at bars, sports bars, and strip clubs made with EBT cards made up just two-tenths of 1 percent of total transactions. Meanwhile, the state doesn’t know what was purchased and some of those can be cash withdrawals at the ATMs in those establishments.

Despite his declaration of supporting education in the welfare system, eliminating the Parents As Scholars program, which offers cash assistance to low-income parents who pursue two- and four-year college degrees, would make it more difficult for those trying to better themselves. There were 237 recipients in the program as of February who would lose assistance for books and other expenses. Many people who receive welfare assistance already struggle to get education, as attending college often doesn’t count toward the strict work requirements.

The bill to impose new job search requirements could also hurt recipients. They already have to show that they are looking for jobs after they are enrolled, but this would require them to show they have applied for at least three jobs beforehand. Yet it can take resources to access the internet and apply to jobs, which low-income welfare applicants may not have. Plus critics say there is little evidence from the 19 other states with similar requirements that they help people get to work. After Pennsylvania passed a law in 2012, the state saw a spike in denials for the program, from about 50 percent to a high of 81 percent in February. TANF already fails to reach the majority of poor families who should be eligible across the country, with three-quarters of low-income families with children missing out on the benefits, up from just 28 percent in 1996. LePage already successfully pushed for a five-year cap on welfare benefits, which meant that more than 1,500 families lost assistance.

An advocate with the Main Equal Justice Partners also told the Press Herald that restricting the use of EBT cards to withdraw cash out of state “raises constitutional issues concerning people’s right to travel.”

While LePage seeks to restrict TANF benefits even further, they’re already failing to keep up with need across the country. The gap between the value of benefits and what families need to live above the poverty line has steadily grown, reaching a record of 73 percent in 2012, while the value of benefits are worth less than in 1996, adjusted for inflation, for 99 percent of recipients. Even as need spiked during the recession and the number of unemployed people doubled, TANF caseloads only rose 13 percent and in nearly a third of states caseloads actually dropped.

LePage paints welfare recipients as suspicious of fraud, but they are overwhelmingly frugal. Nationally, those who receive public benefits spend a bigger portion of their budgets on necessities like food and housing than everyone else while spending less on eating out and entertainment. Their budgets are also less than half of those for families who don’t need these programs.

The governor has come under fire for other decisions regarding less fortunate Maine residents. He wants to move the state’s Department of Health and Human Services office to a location away from downtown that could hurt poor people’s access to the services they need. Meanwhile, he told all able-bodied residents to “get off the couch and get yourself a job” in 2012 even though the state had a high unemployment rate. He claimed that 47 percent of residents don’t work, even tough 65 percent are working or actively seeking a job and the rest are usually retired, disabled, going to school, or caring for children.