By perpetuating welfare mistruths, not facts, politicos are using low-income residents to mislead the public

The perennial discussion about Maine citizens who receive state benefits is coming up again in the Legislature. Unfortunately, certain legislators use low-income citizens as a political football, often feeding myths about people on welfare to win political points.

I want to address some of these common myths to foster better understanding of these programs here in Maine.

The first myth is that people move to Maine to receive our benefits. Data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services – the agency that administers most benefit programs – shows that from October 2002 to October 2006, almost six times as many people receiving any state benefit moved out of Maine as moved into Maine each month. Interestingly, among those who moved into Maine, nearly one-third had social security numbers issued in Maine, which implies they were originally from here and were returning home.

The next myth to debunk is that Maine’s benefits are so generous that they encourage people to move to Maine from other states. I can neither say why people choose to live where they do, nor in the United States should we have any control over where people live. However, if they are choosing to move to Maine because of the benefits, then they are not paying attention.

Maine’s maximum monthly TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefit, for example, is the lowest in New England. Maine’s maximum benefit for a family of three is $485 a month. The next closest New England state is $554 a month in Rhode Island. The highest is Vermont at $709 a month – a full $224 a month more than in Maine.

The third myth I will address is that people on TANF use it for life and have children to get more benefit. Even though Maine does not have a limit on length of time to be on TANF, the average time on TANF for all participants is 21 months, far less than the 60 month limit that some people propose. Also, according to DHHS, there is only one family in all of Maine that has been on TANF since its inception in 1996.

There have been over 60,000 families on TANF at some point since 1996 and now, 11 years later, there are 13,000 receiving some benefit. That means that we have helped more than 50,000 Maine families get back on their feet and move off this program. But no one is on the program indefinitely, and there are strict requirements including schooling or job search requirements. As for the idea that people on TANF have child after child to get more benefit, it is simply a myth that is not supported by the facts. Maine’s population has an average of 1.78 children per parent, and nationally that number is 1.86. The number of children a parent on TANF has is 1.8 in Maine.

The final myth I will discuss is that Maine should have residency requirements for benefits, just as other states do. There have been two U.S. Supreme Court cases that have stated that residency requirements are unconstitutional. I decided to find out for myself how some states could have unconstitutional residency requirements by doing a search on some various state Web sites.

I checked about seven states, including all the New England states; of those, none had residency requirements for benefits. Many people want Maine to be like New Hampshire, and claim New Hampshire has residency requirements. However, New Hampshire’s site states: “Individuals must live in New Hampshire to be eligible for benefits. They need not have lived – or intend to live – here for any length of time.”

Having said this all, I have submitted a bill (LD 168) to this Legislature to help end any fraud in our benefit programs. It is another myth that there is much fraud in the system, but maybe if we toughen the laws a little more, we can stop even that little bit.

We have a choice. We can believe myth, or we can believe fact. I believe it is the job of legislators to wade through myth and make law based on fact. It is also our job to share those facts with constituents. It is not, however, our job to perpetuate myths about the most needy among us in order to win political points.

Rep. William Walcott, D-Lewiston, represents House District 72, which includes part of Lewiston. He is serving his third term in the Maine House of Representatives and is a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services.

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