Locals gathered last week at Topsham Public Library to hear about a proposed bill that would put unspent federal funds into action, supporting families and children living in poverty in Maine. The event was sponsored by Sagadahoc Democrats.

Legislative Document 1475, “An Act to Reduce Child Poverty by Leveraging Investments in Families Today” (LIFT), will soon be voted on in the Maine House and Senate. The bill was introduced by Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport), and has four Republican co-sponsors, including Rep. Joyce Maker, representing parts of Hancock and Washington counties.

While Maker does not support “all of the bill,” she believes it would “alleviate child poverty in Maine by enabling parents to get back to work.” In her testimony on the bill, sent to the Coastal Journal, she spoke to the strengths of the childcare reimbursement and emergency assistance elements of the bill in particular, and to the challenges of reliable transportation in her rural counties.

“Unless you have a reliable vehicle and can afford to fill the gas tank, you can’t easily get to work, get your kid to school, get to medical appointments, the grocery store, and more. This has very real effects on the health and wellbeing of families. The ‘Working Cars for Working Families’ pilot project that this bill would establish would be a huge step forward to getting our families back to work and out of poverty,” she said.

Supporters of the bill say the funds, some $155 million, is federal block grant money that has been “stockpiled” by the LePage administration, instead of being spent on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, which is what it is targeted for. Those programs include job training and placement, childcare for low-income Maine families, and cash assistance.

“The fact is, even one Maine kid going hungry is one kid too many,” Speaker Gideon said. “The members on this committee recognize that our failure to invest in these children has had deeply troubling consequences. These kids are the future of our communities and our workforce, and they deserve our attention and our support.”

The LePage administration has made consistent cuts over the years in support services of various kinds. A statement issued by the governor in response to LD 1475 first contested the availability of the money—which is well documented—and then claimed Democrats are simply expanding welfare.

“The administration just doesn’t think this money is best spent on family safety nets,” said Joby Thoyalil of Maine Equal Justice. “This is money they have not been spending as they should, but have been banking, some $30 million a year. They find other places to spend it, on general fund items, which is essentially a way of covering for tax cuts to the wealthy. This is not a welfare expansion bill, but funding that is earmarked specifically to help stabilize families.”

When a state auditor discovered some $13 million in TANF funds being spent on other programs last year, the Department of Health and Human Services reversed the spending.

Molly Bogart, legislative assistant to Speaker Gideon, outlined the various programs that LIFT proposes. For one, it would provide the first cost of living increase in 15 years.

“The benefit for a family of three would increase from $485 to $637, which brings Maine more in line with the New England average. If you know anything about rent prices, you can see how much this raise is needed,” she said.

Other programs include heating assistance, vouchers for families at risk of homelessness, the “Working Cars” program, and addressing risk factors that lead to opioid addiction. Another focus of the bill is concerned with bringing more transparency to TANF spending in Augusta, and establishing benchmarks to ensure that spending these funds achieve the goal of reducing poverty.

One key program is the Parents as Scholars program, which provides support for post-secondary degrees and credentials to low-income parents. Enrollments have sharply declined in the last five years. There were 700 people enrolled in 2010, and only 96 in 2016. Bogart said that the administration has all but dropped any support for the program.

Bogart spoke about Samantha Watson, a working mother who testified in Augusta in favor of the bill. Watson is using the PaS program to get her degree in nursing.
The percentage of children living in deep poverty—less than $10,000 a year for a family of three—has increased in Maine at a rate eight times greater than the national average over the last five years. Data from the Maine Children’s Alliance indicates a decline in children living in poverty receiving TANF benefits while the numbers of families in need have been increasing: In 2010, 6 percent of Maine children were living in extreme poverty, and in 2015, the rate was 8 percent. Families in that group receiving TANF support slid from 8.9 percent in 2010 to 3.5 percent in 2015.

Claire Berkowitz, executive director of Maine Children’s Alliance, says Maine’s success is incumbent upon the success of its children. “If we want Maine children to thrive, we need to reduce the number of children living in poverty. LIFT does this by focusing on meeting people’s basic needs, eliminating barriers to economic self-sufficiency and providing greater opportunity to education.”

“It’s time we take a comprehensive approach and use the funds that are sitting at Department of Health and Human Services for their intended purpose,” Rep. Gideon said. “I look forward to moving this legislation forward.”