CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) released the report he commissioned from the consulting firm Alexander Group that analyzed the state’s welfare system and offered recommendations last week.
The group received $925,000 in a no-bid contract and has been paid more than $500,000 despite missing several deadlines included in the contract. These funds are at least coming partially from money meant to go the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program — as of February, $185,040 of these funds were paid to the Alexander Group.
As the Maine Sun Journal reports, Alexander Group’s analysis didn’t offer much that was new. “Generally, the new report praised the efforts of LePage’s administration in working to reduce fraud, waste and abuse in the state’s welfare system,” it says, “and it presented many of the same recommendations that the Republican governor and his allies put forward in the form of bills during the recently concluded legislative session.” The recommendations include cutting and reforming general assistance, a program that helps those struggling to pay their bills; eliminating any work requirement exceptions for TANF, such as those for illness or child care responsibilities; requiring some recipients to show proof of a job search before getting their benefits; and having the state apply to be one of ten in a federal pilot program to test requiring food stamp recipients to participate in a work program.
“These are policies that have been fully aired, thoroughly debated, and have been rejected,” Chris Hastedt, public policy director with Maine Equal Justice Partners, told ThinkProgress. She noted that the reforms to the general assistance program in particular “have been made numerous times during his tenure and defeated every single time.” That made her question whether it was a smart use of funds, particularly as they came out of the TANF program itself. “Those dollars could have been spent much better elsewhere,” she said. “Help buying childcare, helping people get the services they need like education and training.”
LePage’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not that the state doesn’t have reason to be examining poverty and its welfare program. “Our poverty level is higher than any state in New England and increasing more rapidly,” Hastedt said. More than 20 percent of the state’s children live in poverty, a rate than has been increasing over the years. Her group has pushed for reforms that haven’t gotten any traction with LePage: he vetoed a minimum wage increase and he froze a program for two years that gave low-income people supports to go to college such as childcare and transportation. Meanwhile, an effort to expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families and make it refundable was tabled last year over financial concerns.
One reform LePage did usher through has had a huge impact. After he instituted a five-year cap on TANF benefits, more than 1,500 families were kicked off the rolls. That mostly created further hardship for the people who lost assistance, as it had a very limited impact on how many were able to get jobs while nearly 70 percent said they had to go to a food bank, a third lost a utility service, and one in five was either evicted, had to relocate, or ended up in a homeless shelter, according to a study by Hastedt’s group.
The governor has focused heavily on welfare programs, releasing data in January that purported to show widespread fraud in the use of state benefits but actually showing that only about two-tenths of 1 percent of total purchases and ATM withdrawals were made at bars, sports bars, and strip clubs. Months later, he unveiled a series of bills to reform the system, many of which were reflected in last week’s report but haven’t advanced. He also decided to move the state’s Department of Health and Human Services from downtown Portland to a more remote location in South Portland, which could make it hard for low-income residents to access services. As with the no-bid process for Alexander Group’s contract, the process for that contract was also criticized: three proposals would have kept the office downtown, but LePage chose the other location owned by ELC Management, which is owned by a major Republican donor. And he came under fire for calling the welfare program a “free lunch” and telling “able-bodied people” to “get off the couch and get yourself a job.”