Truth is, to borrow the slogan, welfare is a hand up, not a hand out, far more often than not.

Most Mainers seeking government assistance truly need it. The vast majority have suffered a job loss or a sudden decline in health. Some are dealing with a disability. Others are fleeing abuse.

Once on welfare, they don’t milk it. The average recipient of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, collects for 21 months. For the typical able-bodied recipient, that time is nearly cut in half. Once they leave, they usually do not come back on the rolls, and if they do it is after a significant break.

The number of TANF recipients not actively seeking employment or otherwise defrauding the system is very small. But it is that tiny subset that distracts lawmakers and the public, and ultimately prevents meaningful reform.

WORKING WELFARE

Last week, Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, proposed two bills altering Maine’s temporary assistance program.

One would clarify the exemptions to a training and education program for recipients of temporary assistance.

The other bill, taking a cue from 19 other states, would require applicants to show they had applied for at least three jobs before receiving a state check.

Currently, residents have to show proof that they are pursuing employment or education only after they start receiving benefits.

The state has an obligation to make sure assistance is going to people who need it, and at first glance, applying for a few jobs hardly seems like a hurdle.

Lawmakers, however, should tread lightly.

Other states have implemented these “up-front work” requirements based on the belief that the only thing keeping many welfare recipients from finding work is a government check every month.

But while approval rates for assistance have plummeted in these states, employment among the rejected has barely improved. In fact, the most significant barrier to employment for welfare recipients is not lack of effort, but lack of jobs. If jobs are available, people will work, even at low wages.

When the state of Illinois, using federal stimulus funds, offered temporary, $10-per-hour jobs, the program attracted more than 60,000 people who had been unemployed for an average of more than 15 months.

It is true that applying for three jobs is not very difficult. But that means the people who end up without benefits typically face challenges that make it difficult to navigate the bureaucracy that administers the program.

They have physical and mental health issues, or are dealing with disabilities themselves or within their family. Sometimes it is as simple as having trouble finding affordable child care during job searches. Dealing with these challenges at the same time as the kind of crisis that leads one to apply for welfare can be too much.

LOST IN THE SYSTEM

Under Fredette’s bill, there would be exceptions for many of these applicants. But the problem in other states hasn’t been the rules, but the way many of the applicants get lost in the system.

To understand the impact of the up-front work requirements, it’s instructive to look at the recipients who lost funding when Maine implemented a 60-month lifetime limit on temporary assistance benefits in 2012. They share the same characteristics of those who would have trouble meeting the upfront work requirement.

A study from the University of Maine found that 39 percent reported a work-limiting injury, while 26 percent reported having a child or other dependent with a disability. Only 26 percent of families received a hardship exemption, a surprise given that almost all were eligible. One in four said they didn’t understand they could apply.

More to the point, the number of recipients who reported finding work rose by only 7 percent after they were kicked off assistance. Only 12.5 percent reported taking part in an education or training program while receiving benefits.

So Maine’s program is effective in getting able-bodied beneficiaries through the system and back to the workforce, and evidence suggests that the people using the system the longest are in a legitimately difficult situation.

Where the program is failing is in helping recipients with considerable barriers get education and training. That is where reform is needed.