October 11, 2013

M.D. Harmon: Kudos to Maine’s Republican leaders on push for welfare reform

One proposal would require proof of a job search. What’s not to like about that?

What’s surprising – and immensely encouraging – about the arguments over a pair of modest welfare reforms proposed by Republicans is that Republican leaders have continued to back their plan strongly, despite the sneers thrown their way from the left-hand side of the aisle.

Mainers want people who genuinely need help to get it, but, like most Americans, they also want capable recipients to show some effort on their own behalf in return.

In the Republicans’ view, that’s what two bills submitted for next year’s session by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport would accomplish.

And he got some support from an unexpected quarter this week, when the Lewiston Sun Journal praised one of his bills in an editorial that also took House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, to task for his opposition.

The first bill would create a “front-end” requirement that people seeking money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program must show, if they are deemed “job-ready” by the Department of Health and Human Services, that they have applied for at least three jobs prior to submitting a TANF application.

People with special circumstances, such as abused spouses or those physically incapable of work, would be exempt from that requirement.

As Fredette notes, 18 other states (including New York, New Jersey and Vermont) and the District of Columbia, hardly bastions of conservatism, have such standards already.

TANF requires recipients to enroll in job-preparation programs, so the job-search requirement would not be a unique standard. Indeed, it could help filter out those who need encouragement to find employment on their own before they become welfare clients, reducing the state’s burden.

The second bill merely closes up some loopholes in the current law dealing with vague definitions of exemption conditions that have permitted some people to evade the law’s requirements.

That will actually help recipients, because it helps ensure that everyone able to participate in training actually does so.

So, who could possibly object to such common-sense reforms, which are clearly intended to encourage able-bodied people to get back to work? (As has been noted, the name of the program is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.)

You get one guess: Liberal Democrats. Speaker Eves claimed, “It’s easy for politicians to vilify families like these that are struggling to get on their feet again, simply to score political points. That’s all these bills are and I won’t be supporting them.”

But there’s no “vilification” here. Instead, it’s an attempt, in a restrained and sensible manner, to spend scarce taxpayer dollars in more disciplined and effective ways that have proved useful in many other states.

As the Sun Journal’s editorial put it, “While we will reserve final judgment until hearings are held and more details become available, (Fredette’s) ideas seem like reasonable responses to problems that have been identified by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.”

After noting that “requiring a healthy person who seeks benefits to have also sought a job is reasonable” (while adding that the second bill’s goals might also be accomplished by training caseworkers better), the newspaper concluded:

“But taxpayers clearly want more accountability in welfare programs. Fredette’s ideas seems more aimed at weeding out people who are looking for a handout rather than a hand up.”

As the Maine House Republicans noted in a statement, “As a symbol of Republicans’ commitment to changing the culture at DHHS, the LePage administration changed the name of the agency that administers TANF, food stamps, and other benefits from the ‘Office of Integrated Access and Support’ to the ‘Office of Family Independence.’ ”

And Fredette added, “Our policies should be focused on achieving independence from welfare, not more and more access to it.”

(Continued on page 2)

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