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

(Continued from page 2)

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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

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Critics of the system, however, see a disconnect between Maine's stable poverty rate and the rapid growth of the aid programs here. They say that Maine's state government is more focused on handing out benefits than on encouraging hard work and independence.

"The purpose of welfare is to move people to self-sufficiency. We're not doing the purpose of welfare," said Bragdon, of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The conservative think tank last month released a report calling Maine the most welfare-dependent state in the nation.

There is no definitive way to measure overall dependence, in part because of variations between states. However, Maine does have relatively high enrollment rates in some programs.

Maine tied for second with Kentucky for highest percentage of people receiving food stamps in 2008, the latest year available, according to the U.S. Census. Louisiana ranked first.

Maine ranked third in the percentage of people enrolled in Medicaid, or MaineCare in 2007, the latest year available, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. California and Washington, D.C., were first and second.

"We're not more needy than the average state or more poor than the average state. We just have a higher level of dependence," said Stephen Bowen, the lead researcher of the report.

Maine also ranked 10th nationwide in spending on Medicaid and welfare per resident, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data.

While defenders say Maine has special challenges, such as high costs and a high rate of disabled citizens, critics point to eligibility rules that are more liberal than other states.

Maine is one of 16 states that provide TANF benefits to non-citizen immigrants, for example, and one of nine that doesn't automatically cut off TANF after a lifetime total of five years, according to the Urban Institute.

About 4 percent of cases exceed five years, and most involve a parent or child with a disability, said state officials.

"The goal (is): Let's get as many people on as many programs as possible," Bowen said.

Public assistance should not be used as economic development or to bring more federal funds to the state, the critics said.

Even the name of the state division in charge of public assistance benefits suggests the goal is providing access to benefits, not helping families achieve independence, say Bragdon and Bowen. They suggest a new name: Maine EMPOWER, which stands for Employing and Moving People Off Welfare and Encouraging Responsibility.



There also is little agreement about the costs of welfare and how much can be saved by reforming the system.

Maine could save $360 million a year if it reduces its spending on Medicaid and welfare to the level spent by the average state, says Envision Maine, a centrist think tank. The potential savings is based on an analysis showing Maine to be one of the top five states in spending on Medicaid and welfare as a percentage of personal income, the group said in a report released this month.

"We're really spending an awful lot of money for a state with limited resources," said Alan Caron, Envision Maine's founder.

Others say the potential savings are much smaller.

The primary program that candidates are promising to reform, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, represents about 1 percent of the state's general fund. "We're talking about a sideshow," St. John said.

Medicaid spending is a major part of the state budget and is higher than other states, at least in part because Maine covers low-income adults. Any major cutbacks there could be short-lived, advocates say. Federal law will require all states to adopt eligibility rules similar to Maine's as part of the health reforms that begin in 2014.

Advocates say the entire debate is misplaced.

Maine and the candidates for governor should be focused on creating jobs and opportunity, said St. John. But, human nature being what it is, people who are struggling tend to focus on the neighbor who doesn't seem to be pulling his weight, he said.

"Everybody pays lip service to the route out of poverty, but what they really want is a route out of welfare," St. John said. "We'd rather see the attention on the route out of poverty."

But critics insist they aren't blaming the people who receive benefits for the growth of or the flaws in the system.

"We're not scapegoating the poor. We're not saying we have to throw people off the system," said Bragdon. "It's really, how do we make it work better?"


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com


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