TESTIMONY OF MARY HENDERSON,
MAINE CHILDREN’S ALLIANCE
Before the Joint Standing Committees on Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Health and Human Services
on the Biennial Budget
March 28, 2013
Good afternoon. Senator Hill and Representative Rotundo, Senator Craven and Representative Farnsworth, and members of the Joint Standing Committees on Appropriations and Financial Affairs and members of the Health and Human Services, my name is Mary Henderson. I am a Senior Policy Analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you this afternoon.
The Maine Children’s Alliance is a statewide non-partisan, non-profit research and advocacy organization whose mission is to promote sound public policies to improve the lives of children, youth, and families in Maine.
I am here to strongly oppose those budget cuts to General Assistance that have the effect of directly or indirectly denying this assistance of the last resort to people who are unable to meet their basic needs – particularly families with children.
I hope that in considering these cuts, you will think more broadly about how Maine’s safety net for children ought to be constructed, where it is failing, and where it must be reconstructed. Taken in that broader context, these cuts to General Assistance — particularly the denial of General Assistance to children who have reached their 60 month time limit — are comparable to refusing life guard when the child has already fallen through the safety net and begun to drown.
If we lived in a society with no unemployment problem, where every parent, regardless of educational status, could find a job that paid well enough to cover child care, housing, utilities, health care, food, transportation and other basic needs, and where there were no chronic health problems or brain disorders that caused adults or children to be prone to addictions or mental illness or learning disabilities, and, of course, no domestic violence, then our safety net would not have to be so robust.
But once we accept the fact that we need a safety net that assists families with children, the question is what should that safety net look like? Clearly it must pay for the life guard to help rescue and stabilize families with children that are drowning. It needs foster care, although that is not anyone’s preferred approach. And to help avoid foster care, the safety net needs a strong General Assistance program that is able to respond expertly when there is a need. But we do not want General Assistance and foster care to become the primary safety net features. The safety net must catch children before they are traumatized or seriously set back by family break-ups, malnutrition, homelessness, multiple changes in schools, chronic stress or other adverse consequences of extreme poverty. Research has shown that these experiences often have long lasting consequences for children and for society. Rather, the safety net must provide adequate support early on when families find themselves unable to meet their basic needs. It must contribute to stability and security for children so children can grow and learn, while their parents focus on improving their situation rather than attempt to juggle compounding disasters.
TANF has been our nation’s key safety net for children in poverty. We know from a 2010 study of Maine TANF families by researchers at the University of New England and the University of Maine at Orono that families on TANF, having typically held three different jobs within the past five years, have many barriers to work. Two-thirds of all households have a member with a disability, and for families receiving assistance for more than five years in the 2010 study, 90% had a member with a disability. This is similar to the national experience as well.  TANF does not serve most children in poverty. It serves those in extreme poverty. It served about 8% of Maine’s children during the recession, even as poverty rates for Maine’s children grew from 15.7% to over 19% during that period.
At the Maine Children’s Alliance, we have become very concerned that TANF is failing children in these very vulnerable families in Maine. Between December 2011 and December 2012, 8,629 children were dropped off the TANF program – over a third of the children who were being supported by TANF. We are very worried about these 8,629 children and their parents. We do not know what happened to them or why they were cut off. We are working to find that out. But we do know that General Assistance needs to be there to help many of these families – whether they are falling off TANF before they have a job, facing eviction, running out of heat, or escaping domestic violence. And we also know that TANF needs to be strengthened to help give children some stability and sense of security in their lives while their parents search for work, obtain an education, or cope with whatever difficulty they face. This sense of security is essential to a child’s learning and growth. The research shows this.
Some of the proposals of the General Assistance work group would serve that goal. Of particular note is the majority recommendation to extend the 60 month time limit if the parent is simply not yet able to overcome her barriers to work or if the job market in her community is obviously one in which she will not be able to find work. Families with children should not be left in destitution, nor forced to move from their communities, when the parent has no ability to remedy the situation.
The other General Assistance work proposal that would be of enormous benefit is the one that would determine how to redesign the program to allow the families to be eligible for TANF even if both parents are in the home, but still live in poverty. The current system – where the child has to be deprived of parental support or care of one of the parents to be eligible – has the perverse effect of discouraging many otherwise loving parents from remaining fully engaged in their child’s life. Allowing two caring parents to live with and parent a child while a family receives TANF would go a long way to providing security and support for children, while at the same time reducing the need for General Assistance. This was recommended by a majority of the General Assistance work group. As their report notes, Maine is only one of ten states that maintains this perverse incentive NOT to engage fully as a parent as an eligibility criteria.
In sum, I urge you to reject the General Assistance proposals that deny assistance to families in need, but I also urge you to help prevent some of the need for General Assistance by shoring up our TANF program so that it can offer better stability and security for the children it is meant to serve. As parents, grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, neighbors and friends, we all know that we must try to give all our children a sense of safety and security so they can thrive.
 D. Bloom, P. Loprest, S. Zedlewski, TANF Recipients with Barriers to Employment, (Urban Institute and Office of Planning Research and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). Retrieved March 28, 2013 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/tanf-recipients-with-barriers-to-employment.