August 26, 2012

Welfare cap shifts aid costs to state, local governments

A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis finds cities pay a high price for the limit, which, backers claim, has helped to cut welfare dependence.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A 60-month cap on benefits from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, that was pushed for by Gov. Paul LePage and the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature brought Maine in line with other states and helped reduce welfare dependence, supporters claim.

It also has resulted in a dramatic shift in burden from the federal government to state and municipal governments, according to an analysis by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Since June 1, when the cap went into effect, nearly 2,500 families have been removed from the TANF rolls in Maine. Hundreds more are expected to reach the 60-month limit in the next several months, according to enrollment data obtained from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services through a Freedom of Access Act request.

Many who lost eligibility have turned to General Assistance offered through their local community, although the exact number is hard to quantify because there is no statewide database for General Assistance, and communities are bracing for more. Portland, Bangor, Lewiston and other cities have increased their General Assistance budgets for fiscal year 2012, some by as much as 100 percent.

The correlation between the TANF cap and those increases is direct, the communities say.

Kate Dufour, a policy analyst with the Maine Municipal Association, said the full effect of the change may not be known for a while but will certainly be significant.

“There was strong interest in adopting this policy change, and I don’t know that many thought about what would happen to other programs,” she said.

Compounding the problem are recent cuts to General Assistance. There is now a nine-month cap on assistance for housing, and the maximum monthly benefit has decreased by 10 percent.

While some credit the LePage administration with reining in welfare spending, others say he’s just solving one problem by creating another.

“We’re spending all this time building fences to keep people off assistance if they don’t belong,” said Shawn Yardley, health and welfare director for the city of Bangor. “And we should be doing that, but we’re also forgetting about people who do qualify for assistance and who need help.”

Christine Hastedt with Maine Equal Justice Partners, a statewide advocacy group, said the TANF cap coupled with the new cap on General Assistance for housing is “a prescription for wholesale homelessness.”

Tabitha Woodside, 33, of Portland, is not in danger of becoming homeless yet, but without TANF, she said, she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.

A single mother of two boys, Woodside is wrapping up a bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern Maine, a process that took her much longer than the standard four years. She is one of the many in Maine who has received TANF for longer than 60 months, but she has been granted a temporary exemption until she finishes school.

After that, she doesn’t know.

“I’m glad that I’ll have a degree, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’ll get a good-paying job,” she said in a recent interview. “For me, it’s making sure I provide for my kids.”

HOW THE TANF CAP CAME TO BE

A federal 60-month cap has existed since TANF was created in 1996 to replace the Aid to Families of Dependent Children program. However, many states step in after that 60 months to continue providing benefits, and, until recently, Maine was one of those states.

Gov. LePage thinks that five years is long enough for someone to move from welfare to work. Others believe the governor is oversimplifying the problem and playing off the frustration of working-class Mainers who see others getting money from the government.

Before the cap was put in place, Maine did have a high rate of TANF recipients whose benefits exceeded 60 months. Most of those folks have now been weeded out. On July 10, 10,309 Mainers were currently receiving benefits, down from the 14,757 who received TANF about one year ago.

(Continued on page 2)

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