October 18, 2010

Facts or myths? Maine's welfare system in action

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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PERCEPTION: Foreign immigrants and out-of-staters come to Maine for its generous welfare rules and benefits.

 

Far more people who are receiving public assistance leave Maine than come to Maine, according to state data. In August 2009, for example, 412 "cases" moved out and 121 moved in.

Refugees and immigrants receive eight months of federal aid regardless of where in the country they settle. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for any benefits.

In Maine, legal immigrants can receive the same benefits as anyone else. Many states do not provide public assistance to noncitizen immigrants until after five years of residency.

Maine is one of six states to provide food supplements to new noncitizens, for example, and one of 16 states to provide cash assistance to needy families. Immigrants also are eligible to receive municipal General Assistance.

For the most generous TANF benefits, people would more likely go to Rhode Island. Maine's maximum TANF benefits are $485 a month for a family of three, the lowest in New England. Rhode Island's maximum benefit is $965.

 

PERCEPTION: Fraud and abuse are rampant in the welfare system.

 

Maine's documented rate of fraud is two-tenths of one percent, compared to a national rate of 4 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Critics say the low rate reflects a lack of enforcement, in part because caseloads are too large for state workers to track. Caseworkers and a team of fraud investigators follow up on complaints, including from phone tips (investigators can be reached at 287-2409 and 800-442-6003). Most tips do not check out to be actual abuse or fraud, but investigators are not allowed to discuss the cases with tipsters, they said.

A parent receiving TANF who does not comply with the work agreement can lose his or her benefits for one month, longer for subsequent offenses. A parent who intentionally deceives a caseworker can lose benefits for one year and may have to repay benefits. Unlike in many other states, however, the state does not cut off the children's portion of the cash benefits.

In rare cases, about 10 to 15 a year, the state files criminal fraud charges, DHHS says.

 

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