Old News Archive

Understanding the Reality about Human Service Programs in Maine

March 11, 2008 - TRC

A great amount of discussion is taking place on balancing our state budget. It is certainly one of the most important issues facing us in the second year of the legislative term. We have a $200 million gap in our budget for two reasons, changes to the federal government Medicaid rules and revenues, which were lower than expected. When Legislators talk about putting everything on the table for consideration in the budget discussions, it is understandable since we must close the budget book balanced, as required by our state constitution. While the budget gap is far from easy to deal with, the concept of what options we have as a remedy the gap is very simple, either we raise revenues/taxes or we must cut spending.

Of course human nature creeps in and no one wants their particular service, program, wage or benefit cut. This is understandable, but it makes cutting very difficult especially since the appetite for increasing revenues/taxes does not seem very strong, at least at the moment.

In especially financially strapped times like these citizens at times argue that fraud and abuse runs rampant within state and federal assistance programs. It is not uncommon to hear citizens talk about a person in the grocery store using food stamp money to buy cigarettes or the person next door on Maine Care with a brand new car. Of course, there are some people taking advantage of our system, but it is important to recognize that the majority of people do not and these services are invaluable to them.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is working to get the word out about what is allowed on some of the public assistance programs and what is not, in order to set the record straight. The following are questions which are asked of me, my colleagues and the department.

If you wonder why a Maine Care recipient may drive a new car, the federal law allows them to. If, for example, a recipient's relative dies and they receive an inheritance, they may use the income to purchase a new car. The intent is that the vehicle will be used to get to and from work, especially in rural Maine.

Here are some other interesting facts provided by DHHS to correct the misconceptions and myths that are out in the public.

"People on Food Stamps purchase alcohol, tobacco products, and junk food." In fact, federal law only allows for Food Stamps to be used for food. Items such as toothpaste can not even be purchased with Food Stamps. As for junk food, again the federal government determines what is acceptable for purchase. Interestingly enough, some people think Maine is too generous and refer to us as the "welfare state" when in fact it is the federal government that sets the requirements and guidelines for these programs. Maine has little say in regulating them.

"People are moving to Maine for our rich benefits." In fact, Maine has the lowest Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) benefit in all of New England. In the last five years, more than five times as many people on TANF moved out of Maine than those that moved in.

"People who get TANF never get off the program." In fact, 63,000 families in Maine have left the program since it started in 1997. 71% receive TANF benefits for a year or less and 85% for two years or less. It is important to know that roughly two-thirds of the recipients on TANF are children.

"The benefits are so high that people are better off not working." In fact, the maximum TANF benefit for a family of three is $485 per month. Also, Maine has the highest rate of working TANF recipients in New England and fifth in the country in retaining TANF jobs.

Programs like TANF serve a valuable service to many in need of assistance. It is important to have the facts straight before assuming there is fraud taking place. That said, if anyone believes fraud or abuse is occurring in any public assistance program I recommend contacting DHHS at 1-800-424-9121 to report the concern or fraud. By working together we can help ensure the programs serve their purpose to help those in need.

TOWNS IN SENATE DISTRICT 30 ARE Alton, Argyle, Bradford, Edinburg, Enfield, Greenbush, Howland, Hudson, Kingman, LaGrange, Lee, Lincoln, Mattawamkeag, Maxfield, Old Town, Orono, Passadumkeag, Penobscot Indian Island, Springfield, Twombly, Veazie, Webster, and Winn.

Senator Elizabeth M. Schneider, SENATE DISTRICT 30 , (207) 866-7359

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.