To the Editor:
Mainers are tired of out-of-control welfare spending. The most recent data (2010-National Association of State Legislators) shows Maine’s welfare budget to be 30% of the total expenditures made each year. That ranks us second in the nation among the 50 states and District of Columbia.
We rank third in TANF-enrolled households, second in households receiving food stamps and third in Medicaid eligibility. It became clear that changes must occur and the eligibility must be curbed back closer to federal standards—not where it currently fell.
With that in mind, the Republican majority in Augusta spent considerable time reviewing all aspects of welfare spending and made changes that the majority will appreciate, despite the loud complaints from a few in the minority. Perhaps it’s time to understand why these changes were made and how Maine compares to the rest of the country with regard to usage and eligibility.
TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) is a federally mandated program that requires participants to participate in jobs or training and allows them five years of benefits to do so. Participants are assigned a case worker (in addition to their DHHS primary caseworker) and must sign a commitment letter to meet certain goals during the program.
In addition to any regular benefits (food stamps, rent payments, Medicaid coverage, etc.), TANF participants are also eligible for supplemental funds up to $463 per month, free child care, dental care over and above Medicaid coverage, transportation costs (even with your own car), car repair subsidy, car insurance subsidy, eye care and glasses over and above Medicaid allowed, $750 per year in text books and a $300 clothing allowance.
Maine was one of only a few states that allowed TANF benefits to extend indefinitely past the five years of “temporary assistance,” as long as the recipient could show good cause. In addition, Maine is one of only 16 states that do not disqualify TANF recipients when they fail to meet the program requirements they previously agreed to in writing. Maine is also one of only 16 states that allow TANF recipients up to 24 months to start their program (32 states allow only six months, unless a child is under one year old).
Lastly, while income determines eligibility and funding, a parent receiving TANF can have a “roommate” whose income will not be considered as part of the household income.
Medicaid (MaineCare) is the health insurance coverage for our most needy, and eligibility is based on the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). In 2012, the FPL is $11,170, plus $3,960 for each additional person in the household. A family of one parent with one child would earn $15,130 to be at the poverty level.
MaineCare coverage for children, depending on their age, averages an allowance of 133% of FPL or $20,123 in annual income. That income does not include Earned Income or Dependent Credits, which negate any federal or state tax due and provide an additional $3,000 or more per year to that family.
Less than 18 states provide Medicaid at a higher allowance than Maine does, and 32 provide less, as allowed by federal law. Maine also allows parents of a child eligible to earn as much as 206% of the FPL to be Medicaid eligible themselves—only five states allow at a higher rate.
Knowing all this, the Republicans led the charge and made the necessary changes, including eliminating coverage for childless adults who were capable of working (full-time employment, even at minimum wage, equals 140% of the FPL), conforming TANF to the federal five-year limit and reducing MaineCare eligibility to a more reasonable level—but still above the federally mandated 100% of FPL.
They also passed legislation ensuring MaineCare is only available if private insurance is not offered, and they took steps to ensure generic drugs were provided when appropriate. With TANF, they capped the program at the five years with no exceptions. Most of that savings was used to reduce the state budget, but some was placed back into programs to help Mainers, including $450,000 to the indigent legal services fund and $3.7 million in the statewide E-911 system.
They also made changes to ensure Maine’s senior citizens could keep more of their pension income by increasing the tax-free allowance from $6,000 to $10,000 annually. Three key pieces remain needing review.
First, we must ensure that the burden does not simply shift to the local property tax by preventing TANF recipients from asking the town for more funds once their five-year “temporary” assistance has been exhausted.
Second, we must review all aspects of the administration and bureaucracy that has grown so that one in four Mainers are eligible for some form of assistance. Third, we must review the benefits that MaineCare recipients get, as the program far exceeds what private insurance would cover, whether that is transportation, case management or other added benefits.
I look forward to serving Lewiston as your state senator and being part of a group looking to find solutions that do not involve simply throwing more money at a problem and expecting it to fix itself. There will always be a segment of our population that needs our help, but to do so we must maintain the health of the current system to ensure those resources are available when needed.
Will you join me in supporting these changes?
Robert A. Reed