AUGUSTA — A proposal to slice the lifetime time limit for adults to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits by 40 percent failed this week to secure support in the Senate and faces long odds in the House.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, is seeking to reduce the cap on the federally-funded benefits from 60 to 36 months because, he said, “three  years is plenty of time to get on track and get on your feet.”

Democrat Benjamin Chipman of Portland argued the program “benefits the poorest kids in our state” and remains an important social safety net.

Despite GOP control of the Senate, his measure lost 19-17 when GOP colleagues Tom Saviello of Wilton and Roger Katz of Augusta joined the Democrats in opposition..

House members put off dealing with the proposal Thursday, but the measure drew plenty of discussion during its review by the Health and Human Services Committee in recent weeks.

Perhaps the starkest indication of the differing opinions on it came during an April email exchange between Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, and the president of the Auburn-based Poliquin Machinery, Greg Poliquin.

Poliquin offered his support for the measure in an email to a legislative panel on which Hamann serves, telling them that 60 months “isn’t a hand up, isn’t a hammock, it’s an incubator.”

Poliquin said incubators produce dependency rather than “a healthy productive human being.”

Hamann soon responded, telling Poliquin that “100 percent of TANF families have a child in the home, so the recipient is either a parent or their child. Most are single moms.”

He said those single mothers must spend 20 to 30 hours weekly in the state’s Aspire program, something he does not consider “a hammock.”

“There are many factors that make it difficult for these single moms to work their way out of poverty,” Hamann said, “and cutting them off from resources would solve nothing except to ensure children are raised in a more vulnerable household.”

Only a few families actually use TANF for 60 months, he said, and those that do are “raising a child while either working, looking for work or volunteering” and need the state’s support.

Poliquin retorted that “volunteering is something most productive people do once they have provided for their own families. Learning a marketable skill or sweeping streets is fine. Save the volunteering for a time when you can provide for yourself. If you’re doing it for a handout it ain’t volunteering.”

“And if you’re doing good works with other people’s’ money that wasn’t voluntarily given, that’s not good works, that’s a government program.” Poliquin said.

In a response, Hamann agreed that “it isn’t exactly volunteering if you’re doing it for a few hundred dollars a month when you and your child need way more to stay afloat.”

He told Poliquin that shelling out the TANF cash to needy families won’t have any impact on Maine tax bills since the money comes from the federal government.

Leaving families in poverty, though, “has an array of society costs – costs to our economy, to our education system, and to our health care system since poverty status is a leading indicator of metabolic illnesses like obesity and Type 2 diabetes, both of which cost Maine taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year,” Hamann said.

The legislator said that it’s true that Mainers pay federal taxes, too, but added that allocations for the program come in the form of a block grant that won’t change by cutting off families after a shorter period.

“Glad to see you recognize that federal dollars still come from taxpayers’ pockets,” Poliquin answered. “Problem is, once those dollars are confiscated from the private sector they can no longer be donated nor spent to make work for the less fortunate.”

“I’ve seldom seen money spent more wisely or efficiently by the government than by the individuals who produced it in the first place,” he said. “Now pardon me while I go produce a few hundred dollars to help myself and others in need. And then a few hundred more so that I can pay my taxes to help others, who need those dollars to help others, so they may feel productive.”

Brakey told colleagues the TANF program “is designed to be temporary” for those who fall on hard times, not a long-term answer for anyone who is able-bodied and capable of working.

Bethany Hamm, director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Family Independence, said the temporary nature of TANF cash assistance creates “a certain element of urgency” for recipients to achieve self-sufficiency.

“Long time limits on this temporary program can rob people of their ambition and their initiative, setting them back instead of moving them forward,” said Brakey, a 2018 U.S. Senate candidate seeking to unseat independent Angus King.

Donna Gold of Stockton Springs said single mothers living in isolated parts of the state often have few options for employment or job training so they need the 60-month limit.

“As a young mother living in rural Maine, l saw the mothers of my son’s friends struggle to find work and also care for their children,” Gold told lawmakers. “I saw children coming home after school to empty houses at shockingly young ages. A child gets sick, a car needs work,” and the women “are out of a job, again.”

“These scenarios are multiplied across the state,” she said. “How can women with few skills little money and children to collect from school and/or daycare function with no assistance? Think of the future of our state, the next generation.”

Though only 19 states have time limits of less than five years, New England isn’t among the more generous regions. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have 24 month caps while Connecticut allows only 21 months.

Liam Sigaud, policy analyst for The Maine Heritage Policy Center, said in his testimony to the committee that “time limits are a proven way to incentivize welfare recipients to seek job training and educational opportunities to boost their earnings and transition away from public assistance.”

He called Brakey’s proposal “a common sense reform that will help move more welfare recipients toward financial independence.”

But Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, told lawmakers that “real reform does not simply cut people off from help they need. Instead we must do a better job, from day one, of helping people get the tools they need to find and keep a job to leave poverty behind.”

The Maine Women’s Lobby’s director of public policy, Danna Hayes, said her organization is concerned that cutting the time limit would hurt struggling women and their families. She cited a study that found families cut off from TANF often wind up relying on food pantries or homeless.

Dan Coyne, a United Way of Greater Portland executive, said a time limit would “harm children and families by eliminating assistance for people in real need” and put them at risk for housing problems as well as the “loss of electricity or heat, inability to seek medical and dental care for themselves or their children, inadequate clothing, or lack of food.”

“This is especially concerning since the children in these households are subjected to the repercussions of these policy decisions right along with their parents. Research has shown that when children experience extreme poverty in their early years, they suffer from poorer educational outcomes, physical and mental health than their economically stable counterparts,” Hayes said.

Orinda Fogler, Bangor’s community services manager, said that in the past five years, 105 households in Bangor reached the 60-month limit and turned to General Assistance instead.

She said those families got nearly $485,000 in GA benefits in that time, costing Bangor city taxpayers $145,500 as their share of the tab.

Fogler said that lowering the time limit to 36 months would likely cause a dramatic increase in GA payments and shift more costs onto municipal taxpayers, a concern Chipman echoed on the Senate floor.

State Sen. Eric Brakey


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