October 18, 2010

From Welfare to Work: For many Mainers, there's no free lunch

State and local programs help thousands but include some employment requirements.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - It's 7:30 a.m., and Portland's General Assistance office is filled with men and women who need help paying their rent or some other basic expense.

click image to enlarge

Aaron Geyer, the head of Portland's Workfare Program, holds an employment training session at the Portland welfare office last month.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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But they're here for the day's job assignments.

One by one, they are sent off to clean the city's homeless shelter, do laundry at the Barron Center, clean up a park or do clerical work at City Hall, among other tasks.

These days, for thousands of Mainers, welfare is work. And people on the receiving end say they like it that way.

"I used to say these people are living off the state, and now I'm getting help," said Chris Conley, an unemployed 22-year-old. "That's why I like the work. I don't want to feel like it's handed to me."

Helping more Mainers move from welfare to work, by providing job skills, experience or education, is the one reform that virtually everyone supports. There already are a number of work and work-training programs in place at the state level and in communities such as Portland, where the strategy is called the Workfare Program.

In an economy that increasingly demands education and experience, such programs are considered the surest path to independence.

While anybody can fall into the state's safety nets, a person's education level is closely linked to how long it will take to climb out, according to a survey of parents receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Maine Equal Justice Partners commissioned the study and plans to publish it this month.

But training programs, work counseling and other pieces of welfare-to-work programs cost money, and public assistance programs are straining now to keep poor Mainers fed and sheltered.

"If I were to reform welfare, one of the places I would look is how can we invest so current participants can have opportunities for education and training," said Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

At the same time, she said, work is already part of welfare for thousands of Mainers who apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

More than half of the 14,000 Maine parents now receiving TANF cash assistance, the portion who are deemed able, are required to spend 30 hours each week doing some form of work activity. About 20 percent have part-time or low-paying jobs, according to state officials, and the rest are looking for work or preparing for work, or both. Each is assigned a specialized caseworker who helps him move toward full employment.

After national welfare reform in 1996, Maine created an education program called Parents as Scholars. The program supports parents who want to pursue a two- or four-year college degree as their work activity.

Maine spends about $3.4 million a year -- split roughly evenly between state and federal funds -- to support about 650 students at a time, paying for child care, transportation and other expenses. Students have to get scholarships or financial aid to cover tuition.

There are lots of conditions, such as keeping grades up and no degrees in subjects such as art or philosophy. "People have to be able to get a job" with the degree, said Terry Hamilton, who heads the DHHS regional office in Portland.

Many consider Parents as Scholars a model that ought to be expanded, especially with more of Maine's new jobs requiring college degrees.

"As the economy changes, we have to do much more to give people an opportunity to participate in that economy," said Nicole Witherbee, an analyst who studies poverty trends in Maine.

Some Maine cities, including Portland, have turned General Assistance into a work-training program.

(Continued on page 2)

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