October 17, 2010

Welfare: Well-meaning, well-funded, well-done?

Voter anxiety centers on public aid, Blaine House hopefuls find.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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People wait outside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Portland office. The recession and the election have made aid to the poor an emotionally charged issue in the race for governor in Maine.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Related headlines

WELFARE IN MAINE: FIRST OF THREE PARTS

Today:
As Maine’s welfare system faces historic pressures, many Mainers are skeptical and angry about the programs.

Monday:
Almost everyone agrees that people who benefit from welfare should have to work. What Maine is doing about it.

Tuesday:
What the five major candidates for Maine’s governor say they’ll do about welfare – and what they can influence.

A soon-to-be-released University of New England survey of TANF recipients found that the average respondent was a 31-year-old mother with one or two young children. She has had three different jobs in the last five years, and she has received aid for 18 months, according to Maine Equal Justice Partners, a legal aid provider and anti-poverty advocacy group that commissioned the study.

The recipients fall into three categories, the group said.

Some have lost a job or gone through a divorce and need short-term help. Others lack the education or skills needed to hold a good-paying job and tend to cycle on and off assistance. And, finally, some need longer-term aid because they are disabled or they can't work because they have a disabled child who needs full-time care.

Most TANF recipients are required to look or train for a job, while about 20 percent already have a job, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. If a recipient has a job, he or she receives less benefits.

Mainers who receive one form of assistance often get help through multiple programs, most of which are administered by front-line DHHS caseworkers who each monitor 600 to 700 cases. Food supplements are usually the first form of help, and General Assistance is usually the last resort.

Much of the aid is now distributed via debit cards. Some aid, such as food supplements, can be used only for certain expenses. TANF aid is a cash grant, on the other hand, and can be used for almost any expense.

SUPPORTERS SEE NEEDED SAFETY NET

Defenders of the system see a network of thoughtful programs that are keeping families fed and sheltered in an economy that offers little opportunity.

"We as a community have a choice: Do we want to take care of the kids or not?" said Christopher St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal think tank.

The core state-funded programs that prevent homelessness have stayed lean, even during the recession, advocates say.

The number of Mainers receiving TANF dropped by 50 percent from 1994 to 2006. But then the recession pushed the numbers up 6 percent over the past four years, according to state data.

"Since welfare reform in 1996, 80,000 families have come into the TANF program, gone off and not come back," said Brenda Harvey, DHHS commissioner.

Maine's TANF benefits are anything but generous, advocates say. A family of three can get a maximum of $485 a month. The benefit amounts to 58 percent of the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Maine, according to the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a national advocacy group. If that family also collected the maximum amount of food stamps, the benefits still would put them only at 66 percent of poverty level, the group says.

At the same time, St. John and others praised the state for expanding enrollment in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food supplements or food stamps. The number of Maine cases is up 32 percent in the past three years.

Along with feeding Mainers through the recession and taking pressure off state and local programs, food supplements are pumping $30 million of federal money into Maine grocery stores each month, he said.

"That's a rational response to a need and a good economic strategy for the state of Maine," St. John said.

Advocates say Maine's welfare system is proving its value.

Maine's poverty rate remained flat in 2009, even as the recession pushed more families below the poverty level nationwide. "These programs are definitely part of it," said Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners.

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