- Associated Press - Thursday, June 28, 2018

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Maine’s legislative watchdog called Thursday for more transparency into how the state spends federal welfare dollars.

The watchdog’s report released Thursday finds Maine has accumulated $150 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Family funds.

The report followed media reports and concern from lawmakers that Maine is increasingly shifting welfare dollars once directed to basic assistance to low-income families instead of to abused and neglected children, work and education training and homeless youth.

Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability Director Beth Ashcroft said Maine’s human services agency didn’t provide any written documentation about its decision-making process.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton said in a letter some documentation would be valuable, but said it would be “unduly burdensome” to document all meetings about funding decisions. The department’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

But the report didn’t find issues with how Hamilton’s agency decides how it can use federal welfare dollars under flexible but complex rules. The agency contracts with consultant PCG, which figures out what kind of data is needed to make sure Maine is legally spending federal welfare funds.

“No issues, control weaknesses or potential risks were identified,” the report said.

Maine is fighting $20 million in federal penalties because not enough families receiving assistance met work participation rates from 2007 to 2011. Hamilton wrote that his agency is trying to reduce such fines while avoiding future penalties.

Over the next five years, the Department of Health and Human Services plans to start spending more of its $150 million by doubling how much it allots for family support as well as directing more federal funds to Maine’s child welfare, child care and at-risk youth programs.

The Legislature’s two-year, $7.1 billion budget passed last year also increased the amount of benefits for families and directed more money to low-income Mainers’ transportation and heating costs.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has said Mainers who no longer receive welfare benefits are now better off and working.

About 10,900 Mainers received temporary cash assistance in 2017 fiscal year, compared with 34,000 Mainers in fiscal year 2007. The report says that’s largely due to Maine’s move in 2011 to get in line with federal law and prohibit families from receiving over 60 months of assistance.

Advocacy groups have criticized the LePage’s administration figures.

“We know the program is now harder to access,” said Joby Thoyalil, policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners. “They are not better off. They are in deeper poverty now.”

A single parent raising two kids received a monthly benefit of $485 in July 2017, before lawmakers voted to increase the benefit.

Maine resident Heather Kilgore, who attended the report’s unveiling Thursday, said the state’s 60-month limit meant she no longer qualified for cash assistance while raising two kids.

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” she said.

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