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.

Such changes would reduce caseloads, although not dramatically.

About 2 percent of the people who now receive food supplements or TANF assistance – 5,800 people – are legal noncitizens, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

And 4 percent of the current TANF cases – about 600 families – have exceeded five years, according to the state.

Local officials fear that families who are cut off by the state would come to them for General Assistance, which communities are required to provide.

LIBBY MITCHELL

Mitchell, the Democratic nominee, was speaker of the Maine House in the late 1990s, when lawmakers from both parties created the framework for Maine's modern welfare system.

She said she understands the system enough to know there are no easy answers. "Anybody who has taken a close look at it realizes how complex it is," she said.

At the same time, Mitchell said, "People are feeling very insecure. They want to make sure there's no money being spent on anything that's not necessary. "

Mitchell is critical of some of the solutions proposed by LePage and others.

Most of the people who receive cash benefits for more than five years are disabled, she said. And the state's system already requires parents to work or look for work.

Mitchell has not offered specific reform plans, and says she wants to make sure the system is efficient and encourages work. "I want to make sure we make thoughtful decisions," she said.

ELIOT CUTLER

Cutler, an attorney from Cape Elizabeth and an independent candidate, said the economy is clearly the biggest challenge in reducing welfare costs.

"We're the oldest state. We have a lot of people who are elderly, disabled," he said. "One huge problem we have is that our economy is dead in the water and we need a jump start."

But Cutler has been critical of Maine's welfare system. He favors a five-year limit for able-bodied welfare recipients, conceding that it is a small portion of the families getting aid. He also wants to create tiers of benefits because he says the current system discourages work in some cases.

Cutler also said he wants to simplify the system and increase accountability.

"It's a system that has grown dramatically and is not being administered very well," he said. "DHHS doesn't focus on outcomes. They are focusing on expanding their services."

SHAWN MOODY

Independent Moody, a businessman from Gorham, said welfare has to be more focused on "bare essentials."

"When someone comes to you for assistance, you counsel them and find out exactly what their needs are and you meet those specific needs with the purpose of providing them a lifeline and not a lifestyle," he said.

Moody has criticized the state for its one-stop-shopping approach, in which a caseworker screens an applicant for more than 20 programs to see what he or she qualifies to receive. The state should offer only the minimal help needed, he said, not everything it can provide.

Moody said he would like to tighten up on abuse and restrict what recipients can buy with their TANF cash benefits.

The benefits are now issued on debit cards. Unlike food supplements, cash benefits can be used for any expense, including cigarettes or alcohol.

"It's the taxpayers' dollars that we're talking about," Moody said. "People will only take advantage if you let them, and right now we're allowing a lot of people to take advantage."

But states have limited control.

Maine can restrict where the debit cards are used – they cannot be used at Hollywood Slots, for example. But there is no way to prevent a recipient from using a card to get cash, then spending it any way they want.

KEVIN SCOTT

Scott, an independent candidate and a businessman from Andover, said some of the simple solutions proposed on the campaign trail won't work, in part because of federal requirements.

Scott, who met with state officials this summer, said many welfare recipients are already working and "it's a myth that we're extending everybody beyond five years."

He said he supports the idea of restricting what recipients can buy with their aid, to the extent that Maine can control it.

Scott said he would start with a complete analysis of Maine's system. "We need a visual map of where our welfare dollars are going in Maine," he said.

Scott would zero in on working-age adults who aren't disabled. "Then I want to know why you are working or not working," he said. "That's the first step toward improving the problem."

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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