We find ourselves this week agreeing with the governor on much of his welfare reform package.
Maine has long been generous when it comes to welfare benefits. We’re ranked second in food stamp enrollment, third for availability of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash benefits, according to the conservative Maine Hertitage Policy Center. Our per-capita welfare participation is very high.
We can debate whether generosity — or just the persistently lousy state of the Maine economy — is to blame for a stubbornly high welfare roll. The truth is, it’s hard to get a job when you don’t possess the skills to compete in a new economy and there aren’t many jobs to begin with.
So, no one disputes the crux of Maine’s welfare challenge: More needs to be done to coax able-bodied Mainers into an economy that’s been bad for decades and is rapidly changing in terms of what it demands of the labor force.
Among LePage’s new proposals:
— Require “job-ready” Mainers seeking TANF aid to document three job applications before seeking assistance — a rule in place in 19 other states, including Vermont, and one similar to existing rules for unemployment benefits.
— Stiffen penalties for beneficiaries who fail to participate in job retraining.
— Limit where recipients can spend benefits via EBT cards, to stop public money from going to buy alcohol, cigarette and scratch tickets for the unemployed in Maine and outside the state.
Some of LePage’s measures to move people from welfare to work appear — on the surface — to be working. The number of Maine households receiving TANF benefits dropped by more than 3,000 in the first half of 2012 — in part because the LePage administration adopted a federal 60-month Clinton administration time limit that Maine had previously been one of only seven states to ignore.
The economy was in recovery in 2012, so it’s hard to say whether tighter rules or a rising tide lifted those 3,000 boats out of the gulf of welfare.
We assume these people found jobs. We’re also guessing those were low-wage service jobs — the only type the Maine economy seems capable of producing. So it should be asked whether public assistance may yet be needed to assist people even after they leave welfare rolls to participate in Maine’s low-wage economy.
Yes, there’s good reason to put pressure on people receiving benefits to be an active partner in their prosperity. And the TANF time limit was based on a solid premise: Five years is enough for most aid recipients to find work, with extensions available if one can prove hardship.
The key is whether there are quality jobs for people moved off welfare. So far, there’s scant evidence there are.
We can applaud measures that push people off welfare rolls, but more — much more — needs to be done to create gainful work. We remain concerned that the emphasis on pushing people off welfare is misguided if there’s no place for these people to go, and that many of these people will be back on the dole even after opening their first paychecks.
Maine’s skills gap is not unique to the nation. Still, it’s been painful to watch play out. In the teeth of the Great Recession, plenty of jobs in technical fields went unfilled even as the jobless rate skyrocketed.
Limiting welfare benefits might make us feel good, and it should motivate recipients. But it’s not at all clear where these people are going next.
And so the question remains: How is our approach to retrain workers for a new economy going?
Not well. But LePage’s plans announced Tuesday — particularly the job retraining requirement — offer a start at addressing it.
Led by Democrats, lawmakers twice rejected two of the proposals last session. Progressives who truly care about welfare recipients should trade new benefit limits and rules for bold retraining programs that offer hard-to-employ workers a hand up.
As our new state senator, Eloise Vitelli has been a central player in designing job retraining programs for the underemployed. We look to her proven creativity and leadership in this area to move her caucus toward a compromise.
Finding work for Mainers must be Job One in solving Maine’s welfare puzzle.