Dee Clarke from Portland is a single mother with three children and serious health issues. She wants to work, but for years her health was a barrier to holding down a good job. Like so many struggling families, Clarke needed to turn to the state for help.

Clarke was fortunate to get connected with the right vocational training and tools to help her obtain a job, while also getting temporary help that helped her overcome obstacles to finding and maintaining employment. For the past 14 years, she has held down a job and has been an advocate for changing the system to help women like her become independent.

Her children are successful and have good jobs of their own; one is a doctor.

Clarke’s story is an important one to help us understand how we can fix our anti-poverty programs to ensure that struggling families have a pathway out of poverty.

Clarke received the job skills and training she needed, but most people who receive temporary help never have that opportunity. This year the Legislature made it a priority to pass a law that would ensure struggling people, such as Clarke, who need temporary help, have the opportunity to get the skills, education and training they need to secure a good job,

The “Ticket to Work” law ensures that people who receive temporary help from the state go through an immediate and comprehensive assessment to identify and coordinate the training, education and tools they need to find long-term employment. After applicants come through the door, they are assessed and connected with tools they need. This ensures they are ready to work and secure good long-term employment.

It’s the right route to reform for the state’s anti-poverty programs. It’s the right route to ensuring that our struggling families can get back on their feet again.

The “Ticket to Work” reform law stands in stark contrast with the so-called “welfare reform” touted by Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies.

In the past year, the LePage administration adopted so-called reforms that cut off families of children with disabilities or individuals with disabilities from the state’s program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. A study by Sandra Butler, University of Maine professor, shows that since the governor’s so-called “reforms” took effect, 70 percent of those who were removed from temporary help have had to rely on food banks; one in three has had utilities turned off; and one in five has been evicted from their homes.

It’s a failure when more families are homeless because of the policies governing our state’s anti-poverty programs.

Our goal must be to get more struggling families back on their feet again. Success of reform means making a program work better so more people are working again. We can’t just target and vilify struggling families when the real problem we face in our state is a poor economy.

With all the rhetoric and misinformation on who receives temporary help from the state, you might be surprised to learn that 68 percent are children. Seventy eight percent are women, like Dee Clarke, who are trying to make a better life for their children.

It is easy to score political points by railing against people who need temporary help. It is much harder to reform the system to make sure that it works. Republicans have introduced a measure that would make work search requirements a prerequisite for temporary assistance. It sounds great. If it worked, I would be the first to support it.

The fact is those who are getting temporary help already must meet work requirements. In other states where such a work search is a prerequisite to getting help for families in crisis, the results are terrible. Instead of putting people back to work, it just puts up barriers to getting much-needed help to get struggling families back on their feet again.

There is no evidence that more people found work because of the work search requirements. More people turn to cities and towns for General Assistance or just end up hungry or homeless. In a state where one in five Maine children lives in poverty, we cannot turn our backs on their parents.

Denying temporary help to those who need it doesn’t help them find work — it makes it harder for them to feed their families.

The goal of legislation to reform our public assistance program should be to get people back to work and off the program for good. The best way to do that is to help struggling Mainers get the skills and education they need to secure a good job and to invest in our economy to help it grow.

Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is speaker of the Maine House.


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