WALPOLE — Gov. LePage has turned Maine’s public assistance programs into a partisan battleground.

And given the spectacle of the closing days of the legislative session, it would be easy to believe that lawmakers in Augusta were hamstrung by dysfunction and an inability to cooperate. But the truth is surprisingly different, and worth talking about.

During the gubernatorial campaign last year, every candidate talked about the need to end the so-called “welfare cliff” and create better incentives and support for families receiving assistance to move toward financial security and employment.

As part of the bipartisan state budget, real progress was made to improve Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

BIPARTISAN IDEAS INCLUDED

And although the budget became a flashpoint between the Legislature and the governor, the approach to improving TANF included ideas from both LePage and state Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee.

The reforms tackled the “cliff” that occurs when families receiving assistance return to the workforce. As they earn a little more money, they face drastic – and sometimes complete – reductions in the amount and type of assistance they receive.

Instead of rewarding work, the program used to punish it.

With the two-year budget, the gross income test, which caused families to lose TANF funds abruptly when their incomes exceed a certain amount – even if they remained considerably below poverty – was eliminated.

This is a significant step forward in creating a system that attacks the causes of poverty, instead of simply punishing poor families.

The budget also expanded access to child care for poor, working families, eliminating a significant barrier to work that is especially hard for single mothers to overcome.

We also know that one of the biggest reasons TANF families have a hard time finding and keeping employment is a lack of transportation. In much of Maine, where public transportation isn’t a real option, getting to work is nearly impossible without help.

The state budget extends transportation assistance for families leaving TANF from 12 months to 18 months.

SUPPORT FOR FAMILY SAVINGS

Finally, the budget provides additional support for family development accounts, which match savings by low-income families for things such as a home or education. These accounts provide a way to build economic security and help to prevent single, emergency expenses from devastating a family just beginning to get on firmer financial footing.

In the midst of one of the most challenging and combative legislative sessions in memory and one in which “welfare” became one of the most controversial topics, real and responsible reform carried the day.

Democrats, Republicans and independents came together to improve TANF to make it more effective at helping to move people from poverty to financial stability.

Real reform goes beyond partisanship and shaming families who are struggling, many because of factors far beyond their own control.

Real reform means improving people’s lives as they make a real and meaningful effort to raise children, care for their families and work their way out of poverty.

The Legislature’s hard work and the willingness of nearly all parties to compromise for the good of the state shows what’s possible when we move away from stereotype and innuendo, and instead look at the most effective ways to help fight poverty.

IMPROVING LIVES OF THOUSANDS

Regardless of your political affiliation or beliefs, we should all be able to find common ground in the idea that assistance programs should move people from poverty into more stable, healthy and productive lives.

When I think about “reform” in the context of public benefit programs, I believe it is about improving lives and creating opportunities. That means reducing poverty and the barriers that prevent families from full and successful participation in our economy.

The Legislature was able to set politics aside and set a course that will help thousands of people, and especially children, have a safer, healthier and more secure life.

As the autopsy is performed on the Legislature’s work this year, lawmakers deserve credit for what they accomplished to make TANF work better despite the long odds against them.

There’s still work to do, but it’s my hope that when lawmakers return next year, they will continue to work together for real reform that will improve the lives of Maine families.