Steps to Fix Maine’s Welfare System
As Tarren has made clear, Maine faces an unsustainable explosion in welfare dependence.
In our research, we have identified a handful of state policies that we feel have been instrumental in expanding the welfare rolls.
- Maine has some of the most liberal eligibility limits in the country, allowing people to enroll in the state’s various programs who would be disqualified from enrolling in other states.
- Maine does not enforce work participation requirements, and, as a result, ranks near the bottom in terms of the percent of welfare recipients who are working.
- Maine does not impose time limits in an effective way, with the result that Maine has the third highest proportion of long-term TANF recipients in the nation.
- The sanctions Maine imposes for the violation of program rules are among the weakest in the nation, with the predictable result that program rules are violated.
- Maine’s welfare programs are poorly managed, with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services repeatedly being cited by state and federal authorities for errors and poor performance.
Fixing the system means taking three big steps:
First, we need to focus the resources we have on the truly needy. This is a state that offers subsidized child care to families with $40,000 in income. A married couple with three children can earn more than $50,000 a year and still receive taxpayer-funded health care under the state’s Medicaid program, an eligibility limit more than three times the national average. A person can receive assistance under the LIHEAP program while earning 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, a rate higher than that found in 39 other states.
Maine is one of only five states that provides TANF, Food Stamp, and Medicaid benefits to legal non-citizens through a state-funded program, and is one of only nine states that provides TANF and Food Stamp to drug felons with no strings—such as drug testing or treatment—attached.
There are people who are truly in need across our state, people who have no other source of assistance and support. We need to focus our resources on them, rather than make government assistance programs a middle class entitlement.
Second, we need to define success as a paycheck, not more welfare checks. It is clear from our data, that Maine has a welfare system that is designed for dependence. On policy after policy, when Maine has the option of expanding access or limiting access to these programs, it is always the policy of the state to expand access in some way.
Not long ago, the state agency that runs Maine’s TANF program was called the Bureau of Family Independence. Today, it is called the Office of Integrated Access and Support, and what it seems intent on doing is providing more and more Mainers with more and more access to more and more government handouts.
What we need is a relentless focus on getting people from welfare to work. In our paper, we outline a series of steps Maine should take, including a more focused and aggressive jobs program modeled on successful programs in other states, tough sanction policies for those that fail to meet work requirements, and strict time limits to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life.
Last, we need to overhaul the state’s welfare bureaucracy. We need the Department of Health and Human Services to move from a focus on expanding dependency to a focus on work and self-reliance. We need to streamline a system that is dizzying in its complexity so that people who enroll in these programs have a clear path to self-sufficiency. We need to have the state’s welfare agencies authoring monthly reports detailing how many of the clients they serve have moved on from welfare to work. In short, we need to define success in a whole new way.
And, because names have meaning, we need to change the name of the agency that runs the state’s major welfare programs. The name we suggest in the paper is one we stole from Arizona: EMPOWER (Employing and Moving People Off Welfare and Encouraging Responsibility).
Following these three steps—focusing aid on the truly needy, moving from welfare checks to paychecks, and overhauling the welfare bureaucracy—will mean a more effective welfare system, and a stronger, more prosperous Maine.