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Anti-Poverty Advocates Say Maine's Welfare Programs Need An Overhaul

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
The State House dome in Dec. 2018.

Anti-poverty advocates say a new report shows that Maine’s public assistance programs need an overhaul to fix barriers to cash benefits and helping low-income people access education and job training to improve their economic security.

The report by the Department of Health and Human Services was born out of a law created by the Legislature two years ago.

Among the findings are that roughly one quarter of Maine kids living in poverty are receiving cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

During a hearing by the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, state officials said there are range of possible explanations for low utilization of TANF, including social stigma.

But anti-poverty advocates argued that the program has restrictive and punitive policies that discourage applicants and do little to lift the people who do receive benefits out of poverty.

Dr. Luisa Deprez, a sociology professor at the University of Southern Maine, told lawmakers that data in the report show little improvement in the state's anti-poverty programs.

"The compilation of the information you have before you — I hesitate to call it a report — represents an extraordinarily grim and frankly embarrassing picture of the status of people in the state of Maine," she said.

Deprez noted that 84% of TANF recipients who left the program remained in poverty.

Others also said a private contractor used by the department is doing a poor job connecting beneficiaries to education or job training that might better their financial situation.

The 2019 law that generated the new report also allows the HHS committee to propose new legislation that might improve the state's public assistance programs.