Commentary

Despite Excessive Welfare Spending, ME Remains Poor

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I must say, as a conservative, I found parts of Rep. Archie Verow’s April 11 BDN OpEd on the Democrats’ “Welfare that Works” program to be quite refreshing. Maine taxpayers of all stripes and backgrounds have long agreed that the current welfare policies in the state are failing to achieve the end goal of lifting Mainers out of poverty and helping the truly needy.

And it is important to note that progress has been made in reigning in Maine’s welfare system.

Maine ranks 25th in the country for percent of individuals receiving TANF at 0.76 percent, a dramatic decline – largely thanks to Governor LePage’s reforms to the program – from 2013, when 4.5 percent of Mainers relied on TANF. Similarly, Maine ranks 24th for percent of people receiving SNAP benefits, down from 11th in 2013. Enrollments in the Medicaid program have also shrunk over the past few years, resulting in 21 percent of the population participating in the program instead of nearly 31 percent in 2013.

Yet, according to the most recent statistics from the Census Bureau, Maine still ranks number two in the country for the percent of our state expenditures going to welfare programs; nearly one-third of public spending is directed to anti-poverty initiatives. What’s worse is the fact that the return on that investment for Maine taxpayers has been atrocious. The poverty rate has remained fairly stable over the last decade, and has even increased since the early 1990s. In 2015, 35 percent of Maine households earned a low income, and 12.3 percent of the population was living below the poverty line.

Verow is correct when he said that our tax dollars are going to programs that don’t seem to work. Last month, I wrote about how TANF, a program designed to get people back to work, has exceptionally low work participation rates.

In fact, there are only five states in the country with lower work participation rates. Maine’s staggeringly low participation rate is nothing new. We were out of compliance with federal regulations from 2007 to 2013, partially because we have numerous statutes and regulations on the books that allow 81 percent of participants to skirt the program’s work requirements.

Maine’s non-compliance has not gone unnoticed. Federal statute currently requires a 50 percent participation rate among states that receive TANF funds. While most states are struggling to hit this threshold, Maine is certainly an outlier with an exceptionally low work participation rate.

As a result, the first $1 million in fines have come to fruition, yet the Health and Human Services Committee voted LD 1631 out on partisan lines, with committee Democrats replacing the bill with an amendment that creates yet another do-nothing government commission to study poverty, while Maine taxpayers face additional fines for non-compliance.

Ultimately, LD 1631 died in non-concurrence between the bodies, meaning that this problem will go unaddressed for at least another year while Maine taxpayers continue footing the bill for an inefficient and ineffective TANF program.

Verow was also correct in saying that taxpayers who work hard for every dime they earn shouldn’t have to worry about their dollars being used to purchase tobacco, alcohol and other inappropriate items.

What I don’t understand is why it took until the very end of the second session for Democrats to finally get on board with this idea when it has been a priority of the LePage administration since his first term in office.

Regardless of the temporary consensus regarding welfare reform, there was still a bitter, partisan fight to the end about the penalties for the misuse of welfare funds. Under the Democrats’ “groundbreaking” plan, the first violation would result in restitution, the second would result in a suspension of benefits for a maximum of three months and all subsequent violations would pack a figurative punch of a maximum six-month suspension.

As a Maine taxpayer, I find those penalties to be a slap in the face. Those who intentionally abuse welfare dollars by purchasing items such as tobacco and alcohol should face harsh penalties for doing so. If Democrats are serious about reducing child hunger, then penalties for taking these funds and spending them on bad habits, rather than using them to feed hungry children, should carry significant penalties.

Fortunately, when the dust settled a consensus was reached, resulting is a law that we can all hang our hats on (provided it is signed by Gov. Paul LePage). The agreement includes penalties ranging from a three-month disqualification for the first offense to a 24-month disqualification for the third offense.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction, Maine taxpayers deserve across-the-board welfare reform that targets other forms of fraud and unnecessary spending.

The bottom line is, we’ve heard enough empty promises and campaign slogans. Next session, lets make continue the momentum for real welfare reform.

About Krysta West

Krysta West is the Communications Director for The Maine Heritage Policy Center. Prior to her time with MHPC, Krysta served as a Legislative Assistant at the National Rifle Association. Krysta is a native of Arundel, Maine, and has served as an aide in the Maine Legislature.

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