PORTLAND – An honest picture of the families in Maine who receive welfare is very different than the stereotypes and anecdotes that have come to dominate the discussion.

About a year ago, professor Sandy Butler of the University of Maine at Orono and I began a comprehensive study of the people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF for short.

TANF is the program that most resembles what people think of as welfare. Eligible families receive a monthly cash benefit to help pay the basic costs of living.

Working together with Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine’s Women Lobby, my colleagues and I surveyed more than 6,000 families who have received help from the program and have completed one of the most detailed analyses of the program ever compiled.

While there’s much pressure to reform the system, true reform isn’t possible unless we understand who receives assistance and why.

Our research discovered that more than 90 percent of TANF families have a woman as the head of the household. A typical family is a mother with two children, and many of these children are very young, as the median age of children in the program is 2 years of age.

The vast majority of these families, about 88 percent, do not receive regular support from the absent parent of the children, and nearly a quarter of parents report domestic violence and abuse.

These are working families. Ninety-seven percent report they have work experience. Unfortunately, most of the jobs pay low wages, averaging $8.46 per hour, and offer few benefits.

More than any other group, TANF helps children. More than 25,000 children depend on the program to have a place to live, to buy clothes and meet the other basic needs in their lives.

And the maximum benefit that a family of three receives is small, just $485 a month, and it hasn’t been increased since 2001. It’s the lowest level of assistance in New England.

When I hear people talking about TANF, they often mix in the notion that becoming trapped in the system makes it impossible for families to work their way out. But the facts tell a different story.

Of the families surveyed, the median amount of time spent on TANF was 18 months. Of those families that received assistance for five years or more, almost 90 percent reported that their family includes a member with a disability.

It’s no surprise, but education matters. The more formal education a person has is a good indicator of how long he will need help.

Nearly 25 percent of survey respondents do not have a high school diploma. Those with a degree spend less time in the program.

And transportation and child care are two of the biggest hurdles to both better education and employment.

Nearly half don’t own a car, and of those parents 80 percent reported having trouble finding transportation when they needed it. They also don’t have access to adequate child care that can match work schedules that are often irregular as well as low-paying.

As it did in the 1990s, reforming the way our society helps its poorest members is receiving a lot of attention from lawmakers and political leaders.

In many cases, they are motivated by a desire to save taxpayers money or to move more people back into the work force. Both are worthwhile goals.

But the decisions on how best to improve the program require that we take time to understand what we’re talking about.

While there are abuses in any system and there’s room to make TANF more effective, our research shows that this program is focused on young children, single moms and families dealing with disability.

They are among the most vulnerable people in our community and need help not because they don’t want to work, but because they are caught in the turbulence of a global economic recession, wages that can’t make ends meet, fractured families and abuse.

As lawmakers move forward with proposals to change Maine’s TANF program, they have an obligation to understand whom their decisions are affecting and what the outcomes might be.

- Special to the Press Herald