LePage’s TANF reform: War on poverty, or war on the poor?

Gov. Paul LePage used his weekly radio address, the latest of which airs Saturday, to tout a substantial decrease in enrollments to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which he refers to as welfare.

According to LePage, the program’s caseload dropped from 15,000 cases in January 2011 to about 9,000 cases in June of this year, which is a more than 40 percent decrease. TANF was created in 1996 as part of a major federal welfare reform effort. Funded by the federal government, the program is designed to provide temporary help for children and their parents while the family works toward becoming self-supporting, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ website. The original federal legislation set a five-year lifetime cap on receiving TANF benefits, which Maine opted out of until LePage reinstated it here in 2011 as part of his first biennial budget bill. 

“We are experiencing a drop in welfare assistance by promoting job preparation and work,” said LePage, according to a transcript of the radio address. “Public assistance is no longer a lifetime benefit but an opportunity to become independent after a financial crisis. … While we have a generous spirit in Maine, we do not have an unlimited ability to pay for welfare.”

LePage went on to say that departments within state government are working together to help people move off public assistance and into the workforce. Though his administration deserves credit for following successfully through on its goals, LePage does not mention a bill proposed by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, that received unanimous bipartisan support and went into law without LePage’s signature earlier this year. The so-called “Ticket to Work” bill went into effect in July and is designed to bolster resources that will help state government determine which programs will help individuals find good jobs.

Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for Eves, said Friday evening that LePage’s cap on TANF benefits has a downside for both children and adults who are cut off and municipalities who are forced to provide spend more on general assistance.

“The reason why we have less people on the program is not because they’re getting jobs, it’s because the governor cut the program,” said Quintero. “He hasn’t solved the problem; he’s just shifted the cost. … His efforts feel a lot more like a war on the poor and not a war on poverty.”

The radio address will be broadcast on several stations over the weekend.

UPDATE: House Speaker Eves sent this statement to me through Quintero:

“Governor LePage’s radio address is long on rhetoric and short on reality. The truth is Governor LePage slashed the safety net, cutting struggling Maine families off programs and shifting costs to cities and towns. The governor’s cuts to the safety net made it even more critical that the Legislature passed my Ticket-to-Work measure earlier this year to ensure that struggling Mainers can have access to workforce training and tools to get a good-paying job.”

Dems call for more R&D spending

Democrats also do a weekly radio address, and this week’s focuses on LePage’s opposition to bonding for research and development. LePage vetoed an R&D bond approved by the Legislature last year and according to House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, he stood in the way of including R&D money in the bond package that will go to referendum this November. 

Berry uses often-repeated arguments that Maine is 45th in the nation in R&D investment and that the state spends only about 1 percent of its gross domestic product on R&D, which is one-third of what is recommended by the Maine Economic Growth Council.

“We’re way behind other parts of the country,” said Berry. “We invest at only half the level of the nation as a whole and not even at one-quarter of New England’s rate.”

Berry claims that LePage has told Democrats that he may support borrowing for R&D in 2014.

Though there are many Mainers who don’t agree with LePage, fiscal conservatism successes like these are likely to be a rallying cry going into the November 2014 election.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.