Maine GOP: Shred the Anti-Poverty Safety Net

By Nicole Knight

Republicans in Maine aim to make it tougher for low-income families by advancing new restrictions for recipients of public assistance, including drug tests and a cap on benefits.

The measures mirror a GOP-led national shift away from aiding people with low incomes by cutting benefits and diverting money in a federal block grant program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to programs that show little connection to helping the impoverished, such as crisis pregnancy centers—otherwise known as fake clinics—and marriage counseling.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has long pushed for severe restrictions on public benefits to push more people off government assistance, as Bangor Daily News reported.

State Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) is backing legislation to cut the amount of time people can receive cash assistance from five years to three years, saying the longer time frame “can rob people of their ambition and their initiative.”

The new cap would apply to the roughly 7,000 Mainers who receive cash assistance through TANF. The monthly benefit for a Maine family of three in 2016 was $485, a figure that has changed little from its 1996 level of $418 a month.

The bill’s supporters include the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which cited Arizona as an example of a state that cut its TANF time limit in half—from two years to one—to save an estimated $6 million. But as the Arizona Capitol Times reported, the cuts ended up costing the Arizona Department of Economic Security $9 million.

Meanwhile, legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jeffery Hanley (R-Pittston) would require Maine TANF applicants to undergo drug tests—a program that would cost Maine an estimated $288,329 in its first year, according to a state fiscal report. The bill permits the state to administer drug tests to applicants with felony drug convictions or if government employees have a “reasonable suspicion” the applicant is using drugs.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy, told Rewire the “reasonable suspicion” standard could open the door to systematic discrimination.

Maine already administers drug tests to some public assistance recipients. While such drug tests are popular among conservatives, poverty experts indicate the drug tests yield few positive results.  A recent ThinkProgress investigation found Maine had tested six recipients since 2015, and none came back positive. Thirteen states spent $1.3 million on drug tests in one year and uncovered a grand total of 369 drug users in TANF programs, ThinkProgess reported.

Maine lawmakers Brakey and Hanley have also sponsored two measures to make it more difficult for Mainers with low incomes to use EBT cards. EBT cards, which act like debit cards, are issued to those receiving government assistance like TANF. At least 37 states issue benefits on EBT cards, and 25 impose some type of spending restriction.

One bill prohibits using EBT cards outside Maine, while another measure outlaws withdrawing cash from EBT cards. The measure’s sponsor suggested—deploying stereotypes about people with low incomes—that public assistance recipients are withdrawing cash and misspending the money.

“Tobacco, cigarettes, tattoos, lottery tickets—all those things, and when you use the money in that way you are actually hurting the family,” Hanley said. “So by restricting the ability to turn a card into cash, you actually preserve the use of it for the welfare of the family.”

Taryn Hallweaver, legislative director of the advocacy group Maine People’s Alliance, said the bills perpetuate harmful stereotypes, while ignoring that people can’t pay their rent and utility bills with a debit card.

“Many parents wouldn’t be able to take a bus to work, wash their clothes at a laundromat, or pay a child care provider to watch their children while they work without access to cash,” Hallweaver testified. She added that state law already prohibits using EBT cards to buy items like tobacco products, alcohol, lottery tickets, and vacation packages.

Lower-Basch called the cash-withdrawal restriction a “terrible idea” that runs counter to federal guidance, which requires TANF recipients to have full access to their benefits.

“The idea that you’d make all your purchases at stores that accept debit cards is just ridiculous,” she told Rewire in an email.  “Kansas tried to implement a rule last year that said that you could only withdraw $25 per day of TANF funds, and [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] pushed back hard that this was a violation of the requirement that clients have access to their benefits.”

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in 2015 signed a law that put stringent restrictions on how people access and use money from public assistance programs. The GOP-backed law was the first to limit public assistance recipients to just $25 per day from an ATM. Those withdrawals were not exempt from ATM fees.