May 3, 2013

Maine Speaker calls bill pathway out of poverty

The 'ticket to work' proposal aims to help prepare welfare recipients for the work force.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — House Speaker Mark Eves presented a proposal Friday designed to ensure that welfare recipients are ready for the work force.

click image to enlarge

Maine Speaker of the House, D-North Berwick.

AP

The "ticket to work" proposal would direct administrators of the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to conduct or outsource screening assessments that ensure that benefit recipients are prepared for long-term employment.

The bill is one of several considered by the Legislature this year that try to address employment barriers for people who turn to public assistance.

On Thursday, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, introduced an "employment first" bill, which would direct state agencies to make sure disabled residents can find jobs.

Eves' bill is a retooled version of one he sponsored in 2011. That proposal gained widespread support before the Department of Health and Human Services estimated it would cost $1 million, a cost that led the Republican-led Legislature to reject it.

Eves' new proposal, L.D. 1343, has the backing of the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Beth Hamm, director of policy and programs in the DHHS's Office for Family Independence, told lawmakers Friday that the Democrat's bill dovetails with efforts already made by several state agencies to ensure that recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are prepared for employment.

The state already has a program to get welfare recipients into the work force. Most parents who get welfare benefits must participate in Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment. The program helps welfare recipients with job placement, but Eves said Friday that its agents aren't trained to identify learning disabilities or mental health issues.

Dale Denno, director of the Office for Family Independence, told the Portland Press Herald in January that most TANF recipients are enrolled immediately in the support program and meet every six months with one of the program's 53 specialists.

Denno acknowledged that the program needs strengthening, and that identifying skills and job placement is labor-intensive.

"Right now we're asking the same person to do too many tasks," he said. "We're running (the specialists) ragged."

He highlighted the collaboration by the DHHS and the Labor and Education departments that the administration has been pushing.

It's not clear whether the LePage administration's current efforts would reduce the cost of Eves' proposal, which would require agencies to screen applicants for learning disabilities or mental health issues.

Hamm told lawmakers Friday that her department might outsource some vocational assessment services.

Eves' proposal in 2011 passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, but sputtered after it was assigned a two-year cost of $970,000 by the Legislature's fiscal review office, based largely on 14 new positions.

DHHS officials said in January that interagency collaboration could mitigate the need for additional staffing.

Eves said job screening assessments are more important, now that LePage has enacted a provision that limits Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to 60 months.

The limit was implemented in June. A University of Maine study commissioned by Maine Equal Justice Partners said the limit has caused 1,500 families, including about 2,700 children, to lose assistance.

The study showed that 39 percent of those who lost benefits reported a work-limiting disability and more than 40 percent had less than a high school education.

The median annual income of families losing assistance was $3,120, about 16 percent of the federal poverty level.

Eves described his bill as a pathway out of poverty.

"The best way to move people out of poverty is to provide them with the skills and tools they need to secure a good job," he said. "I strongly believe this is an area where Democrats and Gov. LePage should be able to find common ground."

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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