October 18, 2010

Truths of Maine welfare

PORTLAND PRESS HERALD

Perception: Maine's welfare system encourages people to turn down work or pay raises to avoid losing TANF benefits.

Although each case is different, that claim doesn't add up, according to the Maine DHHS officials.

The amount of cash assistance a parent receives is based in part on other income. If a parent gets a raise at work, benefits are reduced, but a parent should not lose more in TANF benefits than he or she gains through a raise or additional work hours, they said.

Perception: Welfare mothers have more children so they can collect more benefits from the state.

It may happen, but not very often.

The average family receiving cash assistance from the state has 1.7 or 1.8 children, according to state data and a recent survey. The average Maine family also has 1.7 children.

It also would be a questionable financial strategy for a family receiving TANF.

Perception: Maine spends more money on welfare than most other states.

This depends on what you count and how you count it.

Every state provides aid differently, so comparisons are difficult.

The U.S. Census publishes an annual state-by-state comparison of all government spending on "public welfare." But the total combines programs that provide food and shelter and Medicaid, a government health insurance program that is far larger than the others and therefore drives the state rankings.

Perception: Maine is one of the few states that don't set any time limit on welfare, so people keep collecting, sometimes for generations.

Nine states, including Maine, allow recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to get benefits for more than five years as long as they follow the rules, according to the Urban Institute.

Some other states provide waivers for cases to go beyond five years in certain cases, such as a disability, according to Maine officials. Some states also provide benefits to families through separate programs not subject to the same rules and reporting requirements.

Four percent of TANF cases -- about 506 families -- exceed five years, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Most of Maine's long-term cases involve disabilities, according to the state.

The average time spent on TANF is 21 months, and 85 percent of families leave the program within two years, according to the agency.

Perception: Foreign immigrants and out-of-staters come to Maine for its generous welfare rules and benefits.

Far more people who are receiving public assistance leave Maine than come to Maine, according to state data. In August 2009, for example, 412 "cases" moved out and 121 moved in.

Refugees and immigrants receive eight months of federal aid regardless of where in the country they settle. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for any benefits.

In Maine, legal immigrants can receive the same benefits as anyone else. Many states do not provide public assistance to non-citizen immigrants until after five years of residency.

Maine is one of six states to provide food supplements to new, non-citizens, and one of 16 states to provide cash assistance to needy families. Immigrants also are eligible to receive municipal General Assistance.

For the most generous TANF benefits, people would more likely go to Rhode Island. Maine's maximum TANF benefits are $485 a month for a family of three, the lowest in New England. Rhode Island's maximum benefit is $965.

Perception: Fraud and abuse are rampant in the welfare system.

Maine's documented rate of fraud is two-tenths of one percent, compared to a national rate of 4 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Critics say the low rate reflects a lack of enforcement, in part because caseloads are too large for state workers to track. Caseworkers and a team of fraud investigators follows up on complaints, including from phone tips (investigators can be reached at 287-2409 and 1-800-442-6003). Most tips do not check out to be actual abuse or fraud, but investigators are not allowed to discuss the cases with tipsters, they said.

A parent receiving TANF who does not comply with the work agreement can lose his or her benefits for one month, longer for subsequent offenses. A parent who intentionally deceives a caseworker can lose benefits for one year and may have to repay benefits. Unlike in many others states, however, the state does not cut off the children's portion of the cash benefits.

In rare cases, about 10 to 15 a year, the state files criminal fraud charges, DHHS says.

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