More restrictive federal laws could change the reach and scope of Maine aid programs

LEWISTON – Come Oct. 1, the federal government will put in place new work requirements for people receiving welfare.

The requirements will change the ground rules for many adults receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the aid program that was created in 1996 and replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

States will be required to have 50 percent of their TANF caseloads either working or participating in other approved activities, such as job training. For two-parent households, 90 percent will be required to meet new work requirements.

In addition, the changes will limit the type of activities that count as work and place tighter restrictions on people who are receiving aid while trying to earn a high school diploma or college degree.

According to estimates by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the federal Administration for Children and Families, that means about 1,500 people receiving assistance in Maine will have to meet tighter work demands. Currently, between 27 and 32 percent of TANF recipients are meeting the work requirement.

If a state fails to follow the new rules, it could face penalties of up to 5 percent of its federal TANF funding, about $3.9 million a year in Maine.

The changes, however, won’t come all at once.

The participation rates are averages that are calculated over an entire year, said Christine Hastedt, a public policy specialist with Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for the poor.

“A TANF stakeholders’ group has been appointed by the governor to look at federal law and try to figure out how to maintain Maine’s most successful programs,” Hastedt said. “There’s a lot of work to be done to restructure some of those programs.”

TANF is a block grant program that was created in 1996. To receive the federal grants, states are required to spend a certain amount on welfare programs, said Barbara Van Burgel of the Department of Health and Human Services. The original law allows states to create unique programs and use state money for them. That spending counted toward the federal requirement, but many of the participants in those programs weren’t required to meet work requirements.

October’s changes will force some of those people to be part of the state’s performance calculations.

“That makes our state have a more difficult time meeting the requirements,” Van Burgel said.

There are about 13,000 families receiving TANF assistance this month, Van Burgel said. Of those, about 8,000 count toward the performance requirements.

To receive the assistance, families have to have children under the age of 18 in the household. The average monthly TANF benefit is about $400 per month, Van Burgel said.

As an example, one of the programs that could be affected is Parents as Scholars, which serves about 1,000 families. “Parents as Scholars provides support services for TANF parents to get postsecondary education in a job area where there is a need,” Van Burgel said.

Under the new regulations, postsecondary education that results in a bachelor’s degree or advanced degree is not an allowable work activity.

“We will be looking at all of our programs,” Van Burgel said. “We need to make sure we’re counting the people we should and not counting the people we shouldn’t.”

While the new rules will create some transition problems for the state, the scope of the changes is still being worked out.

“It’s not, by any means, a foregone conclusion that we’re going to have to turn our program on its head,” Hastedt said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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