October 19, 2010

Candidates tackle welfare: State's assistance programs face a political reality check

Budget shortfalls and public anger have gubernatorial hopefuls promising to make changes to tighten benefits.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

From a business executive who grew up in poverty to a longtime legislator who defends public assistance programs, the candidates for governor have widely differing perspectives on welfare in Maine.

click image to enlarge

People line up outside the Maine Department of Health and Human Services office on Marginal Way in Portland before it opens at 8 a.m. Maine's gubernatorial candidates have widely differing views about welfare.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Whoever wins Nov. 2 is sure to oversee changes in Maine's welfare system.

For one thing, voters appear to be demanding it. In a poll conducted last week for MaineToday Media, more than 60 percent of respondents said the state doesn't do enough to encourage welfare recipients to work.

Even if angry voters don't drive reforms, a looming budget shortfall will, said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville.

"The budget requires it. It's going to require cutting in a lot of places or raising revenue, and nobody wants to do that," he said.

Although their plans for welfare vary, all five candidates on the ballot say they want to do more to encourage work and create more economic opportunity. But specific welfare reforms are sometimes more easily promised than achieved, say state officials, political experts and people who work with the poor.

Some programs are shaped by federal rules, so they will be beyond the control of Maine's next governor. In other cases, state officials say, candidates' proposals are already in place. And officials at the local level fear that cutting benefits at the state level could shift demand to city and town budgets.

Any significant reform or cuts will face a political fight, Maisel said.

Outgoing Gov. John Baldacci was reminded of that in 2004, when more than 1,000 people, many disabled or ill, crammed into the Augusta Civic Center to denounce his proposal to eliminate Medicaid funding for 15 services for adults.

"It's easy to talk about this stuff on one level and to talk about the need for welfare reform, but when you start digging into it, you realize it isn't that easy," Baldacci said.

Here is a look at what the candidates are saying:

PAUL LEPAGE

LePage, the Waterville mayor and Republican nominee, has made welfare reform a central theme of his campaign.

LePage has talked often about growing up in a large family in Lewiston that relied on state aid. He left home when he was 11.

"Maine's welfare system fails both the recipient and the taxpayer when we fail to help people move from a life of dependency," LePage said in an e-mailed statement last week. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to his speeches and website, LePage would increase employment assistance and toughen sanctions for recipients who don't satisfy work requirements.

LePage also wants to create tiers of benefits so cash assistance is phased out more slowly when people are working. He has spoken about a Marden's employee – his "poster child of welfare" – who turned down a raise so she wouldn't lose benefits. Under his tier system, a parent would not lose more than 20 cents in benefits for each $1 earned at work.

"If a step toward independence comes with too large a cost, we create disincentives to work," LePage wrote in the e-mail.

According to state officials, benefits already are reduced gradually and the state provides transitional benefits so that people aren't penalized for leaving the system. "But at some point, people have to be on their own," said Barbara Van Burgel, director of the office that oversees state public assistance programs.

LePage wants to eliminate food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for certain groups, including immigrants who are legal residents but not yet citizens.

And he wants to impose a five-year limit for other families receiving TANF, even saying he would buy a bus ticket to Massachusetts for anyone who needs welfare after that. The state cannot impose a time limit on food stamps.

(Continued on page 2)

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