December 22, 2013

OUR OPINION: LePage’s ideas on welfare reform don’t address core problems

But the governor is doing the state a service by bringing up poverty and how to fight it.

Maine is due for a serious conversation about welfare reform — not just an exchange of slogans but also a real give-and-take about the best ways to fight poverty, use public resources wisely and build our economy.

That’s why Gov. Paul LePage’s promise to introduce welfare reform bills for the upcoming legislative session is good news. We don’t endorse his proposed solutions, but the bills he’s said he will put forward should concentrate attention on real problems that deserve attention. The legislative process, with public hearings, work sessions, debate and on-the-record votes, is the best way to address them. And if either side is more interested in political grandstanding than in working to improve people’s lives, the process is the best way to expose that.

This is a real opportunity if lawmakers are willing to seize it. It’s not true, as the governor said in a recent radio address, that liberals and progressives are happy with the status quo and think the system as it exists “is just fine.”

No one is happy with Maine’s deepening poverty, shrinking middle class and government inefficiency. The real disagreements are not about goals, but about the best way to achieve them.

crack down on fraud

The pair of bills LePage said he will submit were first proposed this year by Republican House Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, but rejected by the Democratic-controlled Legislative Council.

No text has been drafted, but according to the governor’s statements, the bills would require applicants for cash assistance to show that they have looked for work before they ask for help and would crack down on the abuse of state benefits, which the governor says is widespread.

While these ideas will sound reasonable to most Mainers, the governor should articulate what problems he’s trying to solve. Is the goal to cut the state budget? Is it to protect taxpayers from fraud? Is it to get people now on assistance into the workforce? Those are all good goals, but the burden of proof will be on LePage and Fredette as the proponents of the legislation to show how their proposed solutions would make a difference.

First, it’s important to make sure that everyone is talking about the same thing.

The word “welfare” has become a catch-all term for so many different programs it has lost its common meaning. We often are reminded about the $3.4 billion budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center’s analysis that found about one-third of Maine’s 1.3 million people receive some kind of assistance.

But the welfare reform bills suggested by the governor are small in scope. They would affect only the 7,700 households that receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

TANF households represent a small segment of the approximately 200,000 Mainers who live in poverty, most of whom have jobs but don’t earn enough to sustain themselves. Some of them get help paying for housing and food and health care.

Most of the DHHS budget, $2.4 billion, pays for MaineCare (or Medicaid), the federal and state program that provides health care for low-income and people with disabilities. Like all health care programs — both public and private — its costs have skyrocketed as the cost of health care has grown faster than the rate of inflation.

only a fraction

The bills put forward by LePage and Fredette concern only the $22 million part of the budget that goes for TANF. It’s not a small amount of money, but Maine could eliminate TANF completely — which no one is suggesting — and it would cut state spending by less than 1 percent. Marginally reducing TANF rolls would save only a fraction of that.

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