Welfare is a hot topic any time, no more so than in an election year.

Candidates of all stripes seem to agree that some people deserve it and others do not. Pledges to get the undeserving ones off the taxpayers’ backs are always popular.

As if on cue, welfare has become a hot topic in this year’s race for Maine governor, with several Republican candidates claiming that too many Mainers are receiving benefits that are far too generous.

One, Matt Jacobson, said in a column Sunday that an out-of-state company ultimately decided not to locate here because it “couldn’t compete” with the generosity of our welfare system.

The company, Jacobson said, was offering jobs paying $35,000-$40,000 per year. If true, that is certainly remarkable and cause for alarm.

Maine’s “welfare” rolls have increased in recent years.

MaineCare, which generally provides health care services for poorer Mainers, had 237,569 “members” in 2003. In April 2010, it had 53,210 more enrollees, a 22 percent increase.

TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) has also increased, but mostly during the past year.

The program handled 12,293 cases in 2003, and 13,920 in April 2010. That’s an increase of 1,627, but 732 of those came over the past year as the economy went into recession.

The debate over the role of “welfare” seems certain to continue into this fall’s general election.

While debate is healthy, we hope the candidates will avoid throwing around some common misconceptions about Maine’s TANF program.

The first, which we’ve already seen, is that people get on TANF and stay there forever.

The fact, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, is that eligibility is reviewed each month and there are time limits. All recipients must have a plan for self-sufficiency.

It’s not as if you sign up for life and the state automatically sends you a check each month.

About 85 percent of recipients receive benefits for two years or less. Again, according to DHHS, since the program began in 1997, 63,000 Maine families have left the TANF program, and 71 percent received benefits for one year or less.

Another myth: There is a lot of fraud in Maine’s TANF program.

Fact: Maine’s documented rate of fraud is 0.2 percent, compared to a national rate of 4 percent, according to DHHS.

Myth: People move to Maine for our generous benefits.

Again, according to the DHHS: “Maine has the lowest TANF benefits in New England. Over the past five years, more than five times as many people on welfare left Maine than moved in.”

Myth: TANF benefits are so high people lose their incentive to work.

Again, according to DHHS, Maine has the highest rate of working TANF recipients in New England.

Even when food stamps are included, TANF families are 35 percent below the federal poverty level, which in 2008 was $21,834 for a family of four with two children under 18.

By the way, two-thirds of the TANF recipients are children, not adults.

Nobody ever wants undeserving people to receive benefits. On the other hand, most of us see a need for temporary programs to help people in a pinch get back on their feet, especially children.

We expect candidates to not just criticize the current system, but to detail how they would better accomplish those goals.

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