Republican lawmakers held a press conference Tuesday to tout several welfare reform proposals, including the restoration of welfare work requirements and changes to Maine’s unemployment benefits.
Maine’s unemployment rate, like the unemployment rate nationally, has remained low since the COVID-era government restrictions lifted. But the state’s workforce participation rate, which is a measure of how many people who could be working are working, is 57.9 percent — lower than at any point since 1975.
Republicans say that low workforce participation rate tells a fuller story about Maine’s economy than just looking at the unemployment figures, and they believe the state’s generous welfare benefits and unemployment benefits are keeping people from getting back to work.
“This is the best economy for a worker that we have seen in certainly my life time,” said Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook).
“So now is the time to strike while the iron is hot and make sure government isn’t getting in the way of that,” he said.
The reforms Senate Republicans are advancing would eliminate cash welfare and make sure that work search requirements for those receiving unemployment benefits are being enforced.
One of their top priorities is cracking down on “ghosting” — a big concern for their constituents who operate small businesses.
Ghosting is the term given to people who schedule job interviews but never show up. Doing so allows them to tell the state they were searching for a job, a requirement to continue receiving benefits. It’s just one of the many ways people can game the system, and Republicans are looking to put an end to it.
“I can’t tell you how many times I went into the office for a job interview and the person didn’t show up,” said Sen. Stacey Guerin (R-Penobscot).
Guerin said she’s introduced a bill that would create a system for employers to notify the state when they’ve been ghosted.
On the welfare front, Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) said Republicans are calling on Gov. Janet Mills to refrain from seeking a waiver from federal work requirement rules. Those rules were waived at the federal level due to COVID-19, but that national emergency expires at the end of the month.
Governors typically seek federal permission to waive those rules only during economic downturns, like the Great Recession.
“Is Janet Mills going to request a waiver that tells working age they adults don’t have to go back to work when we have 40,000 open jobs in this state?” said Brakey.
Brakey also has a bill in that would prevent welfare recipients from withdrawing their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefit as cash.
The cash portion of the welfare benefit was originally provided so that welfare recipients could cover expenses like needing to hire a babysitter for a job interview. But investigative reporting on how Maine’s welfare system is used in practice has found some EBT cardholders may be using the taxpayer-funded benefit for less wholesome activities.
A Maine Wire review of EBT card transaction data in 2014 found recipients had withdrawn their cash benefits at casinos, liquor stores, strip clubs, Funtown Splashtown, and at various locations all over the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
Another of Brakey’s bills would ameliorate the so-called “Welfare Cliff” — a phenomenon where a welfare recipient will face an incentive not to accept a promotion at work because doing so would decrease household income to the structure of welfare benefit income limits.
“I think when I look at the legislature and I look at the priorities here, it’s really a tale of two priorities, paychecks and welfare checks,” said Brakey.
WELFARE STATE BY THE NUMBERS
According to the latest numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, as of August there were nearly 400,000 Mainers enrolled in MaineCare, 175,000 receiving Food Stamps, and 10,757 getting TANF.
Last month alone, TANF spending was $2.7 million and spending on Food Stamps totaled $48.6 million, with 463,794 Maine residents participating in some form of food or cash assistance welfare program.
As of Feb. 1, DHHS said 52,265 Mainers under the age of 18 were benefiting from Food Stamps.