Maine proposal tightens conditions on welfare recipients

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is proposing a requirement that welfare recipients accept job offers as long as they pay minimum wage or more.

The proposed requirement of job training participants is in line with approaches in other states including California and Pennsylvania. The rule would also give welfare recipients more money for auto repairs and books and supplies.

In its rule-making proposal, the state Department of Health and Human Services said a re-write of its welfare-to-work manual is needed to raise expectations for welfare recipients seeking jobs.

“The revisions are proposed to encourage work and training participation,” the state wrote. “This is done, in part, by removing discretionary language that hinders success.”

The public has until the end of September to comment on the proposed rules. The department did not respond to requests for comment, and typically doesn’t comment on proposed rulemaking.

The department is finalizing a $26.5 million contract with a New York nonprofit to run Maine’s welfare-to-work program. LePage successfully won re-election, pushing welfare reform by targeting fraud, reducing the state’s welfare roll and shifting flexible federal block grants to elderly Mainers instead of “able-bodied young adults.

In his 2014 state address, LePage said: “We must eliminate exemptions that excuse (welfare) recipients from work.”

But some feel welfare recipients are being unfairly targeted. About 3,500 Maine parents who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits are required to search for jobs and meet federal standards.

One program for welfare recipients is helping Samantha Watson, 25, travel from rural Parsonsfield to the University of Southern Maine in Portland, where she studies nursing.

“Sometimes people forget that I’m a person,” said Watson, mother of a 2-year-old girl. She said that without temporary help, she’d be working in low-wage retail jobs trying to find costly child care at odd hours.

“I’m trying to do the best thing I can for my family,” she said. “For right now, that means getting some help to do that.”

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports for the CLASP policy advocacy group, said Maine’s proposed rules are in line with other states that have stressed “work-first” mantras.

Under the proposal, welfare recipients who go to college would have less time to raise poor grades and could be required to search for jobs for more than six weeks. Two-parent families in Maine receiving childcare services would have to dedicate 55 hours a week to work-related activities, like training or searching for jobs. The current requirement is 35 hours weekly.

The proposed rules also would prohibit paid job training participants from refusing a job offer even if it would mean less total cash for their family.

Federal law gives states the power to decide when to suspend benefits for recipients who reject job offers. At least 10 states don’t require welfare recipients to accept jobs that mean a net loss of income, while some states will pay welfare participants who take low-paying jobs extra to make up the difference.

In its rule-making proposal, the DHHS said making job training participations accept minimum-wage jobs “will in turn open up paid job training opportunities for other unemployed participants.”

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