The central theme of the LePage administration’s welfare reform is that every working-age Mainer who is physically able to work should have a job. For an aging state with a shrinking workforce, it is in general a sound philosophy.

But if the governor wants that to be anything more than a campaign slogan, he should be helping to break down the barriers that keep residents struggling at the lowest rungs of the economy. Instead, he is putting up more.

UNAFFORDABLE CHILD CARE

According to a report in the Bangor Daily News, Maine has in each of the last four years left on the table at least $4 million in federal funds available to lower-income families for child care vouchers.

Child care in Maine is tremendously expensive – day care for an infant costs more annually than tuition at a state university. People in poverty pay more than a third of their income for child care, and in Maine it costs around 37 percent of the median income for a single mother.

Without a voucher to defray some of the cost, some parents literally cannot afford to work. For others, child care, along with housing, transportation and health care, takes up all their income each month. They can never get ahead, and are always one car breakdown or illness away from destitution.

Maine is allotted roughly $17 million a year in federal funds toward vouchers, but the state can claim those funds only if it spends enough of its own money on child care. In 2013, the Bangor Daily News reported, the state gave up $4.1 million in federal funds because it didn’t spend $2 million. In 2015, the state left $4.9 million on the table.

That money, along with the requisite state funds, could have been used to provide 1,600 additional vouchers.

Or, Maine could have raised the amount given to each recipient, which was cut in 2011 from the 75th percentile of market rates to the 50th. The state could have specifically targeted rural areas, where there are few providers, or those in severe poverty.

Instead, the money went to other states, and the LePage administration further weakened an already insufficient program.

FEWER AND FEWER VOUCHERS

In addition to the 2011 cut in the amount of each voucher, the state has taken a number of steps in the past decade – spanning two administrations – that have made the voucher program more cumbersome and expensive for day-care providers. As a result, the number of providers accepting vouchers has fallen by more than 60 percent since 2007.

With fewer providers and a smaller pool of vouchers, the number of families being helped by the program has dwindled. During an average month in 2015, only 2,800 children were using vouchers, half the number in 2007, and just 8 percent of the 44,000 who are eligible.

That may make the state budget look marginally more conservative. But in the long run it pushes Mainers – particularly single mothers – out of the workforce, and makes it significantly harder for poor families to do anything more than simply survive.

Taking full advantage of the federal voucher funding won’t make that problem go away, but it will help, particularly if it is coupled with other changes designed to help low-income families afford child care.

A bill to increase the individual voucher amount to the 60th percentile of market rate failed last year, but there is legislation now under consideration to raise it back to 75.

There is also a lot to be said for the former system, which used county-based organizations to manage the voucher system.

On the federal level, tax credits should be made fully refundable to better help low-income families, as proposed by Sen. Angus King.

That would be a good start to repairing the system that helps low-income Maine families access child care, which was inadequate when Gov. Le-Page first took office and has only gotten worse ever since.