In the wake of Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election last year, one thing seemed certain. Welfare reform was going to define the coming legislative session and perhaps be his signature accomplishment in office.
No issue galvanized the public more in the preceding year, and rightly so. Indeed, many observers believe — with a lot of evidence — that welfare, more than anything else, was the issue that got the governor another four years in office.
It isn’t hard to see why. Despite protestations from progressives, members of all political ideologies believe that the state should have a safety net, meant to catch people who need help.
Yet, the public has little tolerance for a permissive government that is so generous it indiscriminately doles out assistance. Welfare should be reserved for those who truly need it, it should help them get back on their feet, it should be temporary, and it should not be abused.
Maine is a poor state, and the public at large formed their opinion about welfare programs a long time ago. Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or independent, you have seen poverty in Maine. You have also seen how the state tries to deal with poverty, and fix it, and how woefully inept it has been at it.
Everyone knows somebody who has been on public assistance for far too long and has the capability of working. Everyone has seen waste, fraud and abuse. Everyone has seen inefficient and counterproductive uses of public money. Everyone has a “grocery store” story to tell. Everyone.
That is why so many Democrats crossed over and voted for LePage in 2014. Despite their party’s love affair with unchecked, ever-expanding welfare programs, the basic impulse of most people is to make smart, judicious use of those programs.
That is why basic work or volunteer requirements for welfare benefits are popular. That is why limitations on cash benefits are popular. That’s why cracking down on fraud is popular. At the end of the day, the public supports all these programs, but they want to make sure they are fair, don’t become a lifestyle, and aren’t subject to rampant abuse.
Following the election, a newly emboldened governor seemed primed to go after this issue. Democrats, for their part, seemed to recognize how dangerously out of step they were with the people of Maine on the issue, and sounded like they were interested in reform.
Which makes it so curious that here, in May of the following year, we are just now starting to talk about welfare.
And what do we hear?
Last week, Maine legislative Democrats in the Health and Human Services Committee voted to eliminate the welfare work requirement.
The work requirement, just so we are all aware, is a federal requirement that mandates adults who are not disabled and who have no children to work 20 hours per week, or volunteer one hour a day, in order to receive food stamp benefits. That requirement is not immediate, either. It takes three months for such a person to need to meet the work or volunteer requirement.
The idea behind the policy is a common-sense one. It ensures that a beneficiary has to contribute something, even if it is just a single hour of volunteering, to get taxpayer-funded assistance. It also helps drive people into activities that help them climb out of poverty, like job searching and getting a foot in the door with an employer or volunteer organization.
This often turns into opportunity, gets people working and encourages self-sufficiency, which is in turn good for the person in need, and good for the state. Everybody wins.
There are some positives finally emerging from the Legislature, though.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau is sponsoring legislation that would limit cash withdrawals of TANF benefits to 15 percent of the monthly stipend, restrict the use of EBT cards outside Maine, and require those applying for TANF benefits to show they are looking for work.
And of course, LePage recently unveiled his plan to finally eliminate the welfare “benefit cliff,” which throws beneficiaries off TANF if they make slightly more than the eligibility standards. The goal of welfare programs is to help people, then help them get off the program, but the “benefit cliff” creates a perverse incentive whereby workers make more money by making less and keeping their TANF benefit, causing many to not take extra shifts, accept raises and take promotions, because it would be devastating to lose their benefit.
So, hope remains that despite the late start, this legislature may do more on the issue of welfare than any previous legislature has. Let’s just make sure they actually fix the system, and we don’t return to a time when Maine lacked any accountability in its programs.