Maine Governor Attacks Effort to Help Families in Poverty

By Nicole Knight

“[Gov. Paul LePage] just assumes that if he makes life in poverty even more miserable, the jobs will somehow appear,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch with the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Maine’s Republican governor is lashing out against a female lawmaker who wants to increase for the first time in 15 years the amount of cash aid going to families in need.

Gov. Paul LePage leveled a verbal attack on House Speaker Sara Gideon (D- Freeport) in a radio address Wednesday, saying, “Like most limousine liberals, Gideon thinks throwing money at poverty helps poor people. It doesn’t.”

The dispute hinges on a sweeping bill Gideon introduced last week to reform the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and shift unspent TANF money to families with low incomes. Called An Act to Reduce Child Poverty by Leveraging Investments in Families Today, or LIFT, the bill would raise the basic cash payment to match the average amount in other New England states.

A family of three might see its monthly assistance rise by $152 to $637 a month, according to Gideon. Payments would be tied to the inflation rate or the Consumer Price Index, ensuring the value of the aid isn’t eroded over time. “LIFT offers real reforms that ensure children and families have what they need to set them on a path for a healthy, secure, and independent future,” Gideon said.

Fewer and fewer Maine families are aided by TANF, a federal block grant program intended to help vulnerable people get on their feet, even as the state poverty rate has climbed. LePage’s policies have resulted in 14,550 fewer children receiving help from TANF, as the Bangor Daily News reported. The number of Maine children living in deep poverty is now eight times worse than the national average, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

For every 100 low-income Maine families with children, 24 received TANF cash aid in 2015, down from 61 in 2001, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Taryn Hallweaver, legislative director with the advocacy group Maine People’s Alliance, which supports the bill, said the LePage administration has turned away nearly $1.9 billion in federal funds since 2011 for programs to aid families with low income, like Medicaid, including $150 million in TANF funds.

“So-called welfare ‘reform’ measures have driven people deeper into poverty,” Hallweaver told Rewire. “Taking people off welfare rolls doesn’t magically make them not poor. It’s backwards thinking, and it’s cruel.”

Maine is sitting on a pot of about $155 million in unspent TANF money, the Bangor Daily News reported, and the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has misspent $13 million in TANF funds.

LePage contends “there are plenty of jobs out there. Unemployment is at 3 percent, and businesses need employees.” he said in a recent radio address.

He said the DHHS has dedicated $1.8 million to employment and youth education programs.

The legislation institutes accountability measures, calling on the DHHS to track how families and children fare when they leave welfare. The bill includes benefits to help low-income people get on their feet, like housing vouchers, expanded job training, substance abuse treatment, and a transportation program to help low-income people buy affordable vehicles.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy, told Rewire that LePage isn’t offering a credible, alternative to Gideon’s proposal, such as a subsidized jobs program. LePage is championing a slate of Republican-backed bills that add new caps on welfare payments and restrict how families spend cash assistance, as Rewire reported.

“Many recipients of assistance would prefer a subsidized jobboth because it would be more money, and because they share the value that working is the best way to support their families,” Lower-Basch told Rewire in an email. “But he’s not proposing a jobs program either. He just assumes that if he makes life in poverty even more miserable, the jobs will somehow appear. But people who are hungry, and who lack access to health care, have even more trouble finding work.”

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