ORONO — Gov. LePage tells us he wants to reform welfare. The definition of the word “reform” is “to improve something.” My research on one of the governor’s past welfare “reform” initiatives – the 60-month time limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – indicates that the lives of most families affected by the law were not improved at all.

Rather than finding jobs, as the governor claimed would occur, these families, including thousands of Maine children, have faced truly disturbing hardships.

As the Legislature moves into its final weeks in Augusta, Gov. LePage has once again put forward a “welfare reform” agenda by introducing four new bills that continue to unfairly penalize some of the most vulnerable families in our state. These bills are based on stereotypes and anecdotes rather than systematically gathered evidence.

The 60-month TANF time limit, put in place in 2012, was supposed to motivate parents to get jobs that would support their families without assistance.

My research has shown that the law failed to meet this objective. It ignored significant barriers that families face, including disability, domestic violence and low educational levels. Further, it did nothing to help them overcome these barriers and find employment.

There is clear evidence that most parents receiving TANF have, in fact, worked – a 2010 study found that 97 percent have work experience, holding an average of three jobs in the preceding five years.

Motivation to work is not the problem. Family circumstances make it exceedingly difficult for these parents to maintain employment. The 2010 study found that 90 percent of parents reaching the 60-month limit had a work-limiting disability or were caring for a family member with a disability.

A myriad of national studies have shown that TANF time limits often leave families in deep and severe poverty because of these barriers. We have found similar consequences here in Maine.

By the end of 2013, more than 3,300 families in Maine had their benefits terminated, affecting approximately 6,000 children. More than half of the parents in these families do not have a high school education. Needless to say, their prospects of finding employment are dire, especially in today’s weak job market.

My research, carried out in two phases since the law went into effect, reveals that the families who have lost benefits are struggling and often losing the battle to meet their basic needs.

The first study, conducted in fall 2012, included 54 families who had been living without TANF for several months. Only one-quarter of the survey respondents were employed. The jobs they held were part-time and paid an average of $9 per hour – not enough to raise a family. Disability was pervasive, and a history of domestic violence and low educational levels were common elements in their lives.

While the Legislature provided for extensions for those unable to work, my research has revealed that people are discouraged from applying for these extensions, and when they do, they are often denied. Data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services shows wide discrepancies between the prevalence of disability and domestic violence known among these families and the number of extensions granted for these reasons.

This past fall, I interviewed 13 parents who had completed the original survey to see how they were faring one year later.

Only five of the parents were employed, still mostly in part-time jobs and often working despite disabilities, with an average hourly wage of $9.25. Only two had received extensions of their TANF benefits, although 11 of the 13 had at least one family member who was disabled.

Four had lost their housing, and three had been separated from their children. More than half had their utilities disconnected, and nearly half had run out of heating fuel. Clearly, the lives of these families have not improved under this “welfare reform” touted by the governor.

If we are interested in real reform, we need to help families move out of poverty.

Currently, Maine’s poverty rate is rising faster than the rate in the rest of the country. One in five children in Maine is living in poverty. For children under 5, the poverty rate is 26 percent, and it has increased at a rate four times the national average in the last three years.

Rather than proposing bills that punish families who face multiple barriers to economic independence, we need policies that assist them, including better access to training and education.

If the goal is reduce poverty, the TANF time limit law has resoundingly failed. The governor’s newly proposed “welfare reform” bills – including one to limit access to education – would do so as well.