December 22, 2013

Our View: Welfare bills don’t address core problems

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But cutting spending is not the only reason to consider reforming these programs.

The governor repeatedly brings up the issue of fraud and the feeling of many taxpayers that dishonest people are taking advantage of their generosity. This is a serious concern that should be addressed, and the governor should be prepared to back up his charges with more than anecdotes.

In his radio address, the governor talked about the misuse of electronic benefit cards, the debit cards the state uses to distribute TANF and nutrition assistance benefits.

He said that the cards have been used in casinos and to purchase illegal drugs, alcohol and lottery tickets. He said that EBT cards issued in Maine have been used in Las Vegas and Florida, suggesting that the people who were issued them are taking advantage of the system.

Without any details, it is impossible to judge the extent of the problem. Since much of this activity is already illegal, it is important that the Legislature investigate these charges and see if there are holes in the enforcement system that could be filled. It is impossible for these programs to succeed if the public believes that its money is being wasted.

BREAKING THE CYCLE

However, limiting fraud is not a reform of the system. Cracking down on cheats is important, but would affect only a minority of a minority of people in poverty and would not get at any of the core problems.

LePage, Fredette and others argue that welfare recipients would be better off with a job than a monthly check, and few Mainers would disagree. Work and independence are preferable to being trapped in a cycle of poverty with no exit. Breaking that cycle should be the goal of any reform effort, and the governor could expect to find allies at either end of the political spectrum if that is his goal.

But it’s not just a lack of initiative that keeps TANF recipients from working. These are, for the most part, families with dependent children headed by single women. Nearly one-quarter of TANF families are victims of domestic violence. Two-thirds of these families have at least one member with a disability. They disproportionately live in the parts of the state with the highest unemployment rates, where jobs are scarce.

Full employment is the right goal, but just telling people to look for a job is not enough. The state should be working to make sure that there are jobs to be found and that the people looking for them have the skills they need to be productive. It must make sure that there are sufficient training and education opportunities and a child-care system that lets parents go to work knowing their children are safe.

The whole state has an interest in the welfare-to-work transition. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation issued a report this year titled “Making Maine Work,” which warned that our aging population and shrinking workforce will spell disaster for our economy if we don’t take steps to grow.

CAN'T AFFORD WASTE

Some of that growth could come from people moving to the state, but the report found that much will have to come from making full use of the people who are already here. The group set goals of finding work for people who are not now part of the workforce by 2020, including 12,000 senior citizens, 10,000 people with disabilities and 6,000 young people who lack a high school diploma or job history. Their point is that Maine can’t afford to waste anyone, and the business community would be a powerful partner in creating the kinds of supports that would help Maine tap into this unused labor pool.

At times, but not in these bills, the governor has talked about letting people keep their benefits longer as they transition to work. The question for the governor should be: If he wants to achieve the long-term goals of growing the workforce and promoting independence, is he willing to spend more money in the short term to achieve it? Because if not, we are not really talking about meaningful reform.

And we should be. It’s time to have a serious, evidence-based discussion about what causes poverty and the best way to eliminate it. If the governor is ready to have that debate, he has done us all a service by introducing these bills.

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