AUGUSTA, Maine - Welfare reform is front and center at the State House this week, as lawmakers consider several proposals that supporters say are designed to help those who can get off welfare reach that goal.
But one measure would also prohibit the purchase of junk food with food stamp benefits.
Lawmakers from both major parties have introduced legislation that they say is designed to make the best use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - or SNAP - benefits, commonly known as food stamps, by encouraging more healthy food. Other measures would prohibit the use of TANF - that’s the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family grants - from being used to gamble, or to buy booze or cigarettes.
And probably the most significant of the bills up for consideration would eliminate the abrupt loss of benefits when a recipient goes back to work, even part time. Chris Hastedt, of Maine Equal Justice Partners, says this "cliff" in monthly benefits unfairly penalizes people who are already struggling. For example, a typical TANF payment is $1,023 dollars a month.
"They earn $1,024, they are done with TANF," Hastedt said. "And that is a travesty when you recognize that we are throwing kids into even deeper poverty."
That cliff is very real to many recipients. Theresa Day told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee that she received TANF while in college and says she was struggling to get her degree while supporting her daughter.
"I had a job opportunity at that time to work part time that would have helped me significantly, but If I had made just $50 more, I would have lost all of the help I was getting to finish college."
Gov. Paul LePage has introduced legislation that would create a system that phases out benefits, but allows them to continue for a longer time as an incentive for those on welfare to go to work and stay working. He says very few of those getting welfare don’t want to work.
"I am encouraged that people really want to get out there and do something," LePage says. "The problem is having the skill sets and knowing how to do it. For instance, a very simple thing - very, very simple thing: When you are interviewing, don’t chew bubble gum."
LePage says he wants to see state programs that help those on welfare get the skills they need to interview for jobs, and keep a job once they have started work. His proposal would also increase transportation assistance for those transitioning from welfare to a job.
Rep. Drew Gattine, a Democrat from Westbrook, co-chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and has sponsored a bill with similar goals. "My understanding is that both bills require work," Gattine says. "I think both bills have a transportation aspect to it. My bill has a child care aspect, which I think is important. But I am really interested in looking at his bill and the department’s suggestions, and suggestions of anybody else that has something to bring to the table."
LePage says his proposal also seeks to bolster the family development accounts, which allow welfare recipients to save for cars or down payments for a home,,without being penalized. He’s says he's optimistic that something can be worked out this session. "It’s unusual when you have both parties looking at the same idea, the same concept, so hopefully this can get through in some fashion," LePage said.
While the committee has held hearings on some of the bills, they have yet to schedule one on LePage’s bill.