Maine legislators have gotten tough on a problem that isn’t one: welfare abuse. Barring people who get cash assistance from buying things like alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets and tattoos – as lawmakers did just before adjourning last week – won’t do much to help families escape poverty. Meanwhile, proposals that actually would have helped low-income Mainers achieve self-sufficiency were dead on arrival in Augusta, where symbolism won out over substance and left thousands behind.

Several proposals to reform Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – the program that most people think of when they think of welfare – were on the table this session. The only one that stood a chance, though, targeted purchases made with TANF benefits. And what divided Democrats and Republicans was not whether to bar TANF recipients from making questionable purchases using state-issued electronic benefit transfer cards, but how severely they should be punished for doing so.

Nobody thinks it’s a good idea to spend public money on smokes or beer, so supporting a proposal to penalize welfare misuse is a no-brainer for elected officials. But the number of Mainers who get TANF is small – about 5,000 families – and Maine Department of Health and Human Services data show that the number of EBT transactions at places like bars and smoke shops is just a fraction of a percent of all EBT transactions. What’s more, states with similar regulations have found that enforcing restrictions on TANF use can be cumbersome.

What really works in helping families move out of poverty? Addressing the barriers that keep them out of the workforce. Some people need on-the-job training or help earning a college degree. Others need housing assistance so that they can stay in one place and establish stable lives for themselves and their families.

But a Democratic proposal to put such targeted supports into place stalled out. So did a plan to require the state to measure and evaluate public assistance programs so we can find out whether or not they’re doing any good.

Though the drop in the number of TANF recipients in Maine during the LePage administration has been touted as a victory, cutbacks in public assistance have been accompanied by soaring poverty rates, homelessness and food insecurity. It doesn’t reflect well on our legislators that they’ve allowed so many people to remain in such unworkable situations, even as they’ve scrambled to punish a bogeyman that doesn’t exist.

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