Maine, which once led the nation in dependence on government welfare, is taking yet another step forward to fix its welfare system.
After six years of tackling tough welfare problems, Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, recently introduced a bill to further overhaul taxpayer-funded benefits programs. The Welfare Reform for Increased Security and Employment (RISE) Act would reinvent Maine’s welfare system to put work first, protect benefits for the truly needy, and make welfare a temporary hand up, not a lifetime handout.
LePage is no stranger to poverty himself. One of 18 children, LePage fled home at eleven to escape an abusive father. He spent time living on the streets and in cars, working odd jobs, and learning English as a second language. LePage’s rise from the streets to the Blaine House taught him broad lessons that he has applied to Maine’s welfare programs.
Governor LePage learned firsthand that the way out of poverty is not government welfare but personal responsibility, employment, and community support.
Applying these lessons learned, LePage has transformed Maine into a national leader tackling the welfare-dependency crisis. In 2011, one out of three Mainers was on welfare, and Maine was leading the way in many measures of dependency; it ranked in the top six for percentage of the population on food stamps, cash welfare, and Medicaid enrollment.
Governor LePage and his health and human services commissioner, Mary Mayhew, implemented time limits, work requirements, and anti-fraud programs that have already moved tens of thousands of Mainers from welfare back into the work force, helping businesses grow.
Nearly 250,000 Mainers (out of a total population of about 1.3 million) were dependent on food stamps when LePage assumed office in 2011. By 2016, that number had dropped to 180,000. While other states are crashing headlong into budget crises caused by Medicaid expansion, Maine has transitioned more than 80,000 people out of Medicaid, refocusing the program on the truly needy — all while the uninsured rate has declined. Maine now has $1 billion in the bank and a 40-year low in unemployment.
Now LePage wants to make sure that this trend continues for generations to come. The RISE Act focuses on work and individual responsibility — the key to moving people out of poverty and onto a more secure path. When LePage required able-bodied adults on food stamps to work, train, or volunteer, their average income more than doubled in just one year. That higher income more than offset the food stamps they lost, leaving them better off. Employment increased, incomes rose, and poverty declined. The research is clear: Jobs do a much better job of putting food on the table than an EBT card does. The RISE Act, if passed, will make sure that this work requirement continues in Maine.
Maine has transitioned more than 80,000 people out of Medicaid, refocusing the program on the truly needy.
The bill would also ensure that needy children receive financial support from their parents. Under the plan, parents with child-support obligations will be required to meet those obligations before they are eligible to receive welfare. This is based on the sound principle that you should fulfill your obligation to your children before asking the taxpayers to step in and help you. Parents who refused to cooperate with child-support services would be banned or suspended from food-assistance programs.
The RISE Act also aims to ensure — for instance, by accurately counting the incomes and resources of those applying for welfare — that benefits go to those who are truly in need. This way, residents with significant financial assets — including lottery winnings — won’t be allowed to drain resources from the most vulnerable.
For cash welfare, the RISE Act shortens the lifetime limit from 60 months to 36 months, joining 17 other states with time limits between 12 and 36 months. This will restore the temporary program’s fundamental purpose: to help vault a person into employment as soon as possible, not give cash with no deadlines or time limits.
Other major reforms in the RISE Act include increasing welfare-spending transparency, requiring that welfare funds for college tuition go toward useful degree programs with high job outlooks, closing a loophole that provides more generous welfare benefits to noncitizens than to citizens, and immediately disqualifying people who steal welfare funds.
The RISE Act continues LePage’s successful efforts to reduce dependency in Maine. Let’s hope the nation takes notice and follows his lead.