How Maine Reformed Its Welfare System
Jill Rothrock’s experiences with the welfare system in Maine came full circle in 2012. Five years earlier, Rothrock, a mother of two, was introduced to the system after enrolling in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program in 2007. But when forced to transition off of public assistance—the result of Gov. Paul LePage’s reforms to Maine’s welfare programs—she was hired by the state Department of Health and Human Services as a clerk in the agency that administered her benefits.
It took years for Rothrock to get to that point, though. For more than two decades, the mother of two battled drug and alcohol addiction. Her struggle came to a head in 2007, when she was arrested after picking up a prescription for Vicodin at a pharmacy in Bucksport, Maine. Rothrock had called in the prescription herself, a practice she took up after moving to Maine from her home state of New Jersey when she was 29 years old. And her arrest in 2007 was rock bottom, Rothrock said.
Facing three felony charges, Rothrock attended drug court, which provides community-based treatment services to people with substance abuse. She graduated from the program, and her charges were dropped from felonies to misdemeanors. Rothrock then cleaned up (she’s now approaching 10 years of sobriety) and enrolled in the TANF program. Rothrock then began searching for a full-time job.
To receive benefits through TANF, recipients must work, volunteer, attend school or vocational training, or actively search for employment. Rothrock complied with the rules of the program and began receiving benefits for more than four years while she worked part-time for periods of time and was on unemployment for others.
But by 2011, things in Maine were about to change. LePage, a Republican, took office, and the newly elected governor had campaigned on reforming the welfare system. One of his first changes was to reinstate a 60-month lifetime limit on TANF eligibility. By that time, Rothrock was quickly approaching the end of her five years.
“It came down to the wire,” Rothrock told The Daily Signal last year. “I knew my TANF was closing, and I had to secure a job or I would have no income.”
The young mother began working with state employees through Maine’s TANF-ASPIRE, or Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment, program. TANF recipients are required to go through the ASPIRE program, where they’re assisted with job searches, training, and education. Rothrock started working 30 hours each week at a nonprofit and began to see noticeable changes in herself.
“I got in there, and that’s when everything started to come back—my work ethic, and how much I loved working,” she said.
A mentor paired with Rothrock eventually pushed her to apply for a position with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the very agency that was overseeing the changes to the TANF program that had impacted her life. And she got the job. In 2012, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services hired Rothrock as a clerk and in 2014, she was promoted to the eligibility department, working on discrepancy reports the state receives from the federal government.
Once the money starts coming in, it’s the best feeling in the world. My confidence started to come back.
As she transitioned off of the TANF program, the state provided her with transitional benefits like childcare and supplemental food stamps.
Rothrock admits it was “scary not to have that safety net down there.” But she said the 60-month time limit enacted by LePage forced her to “do what I had to do to get off benefits and start making my own money again.”
“Once the money starts coming in,” she said, “it’s the best feeling in the world. My confidence started to come back.”
Born Into It
LePage spoke about the cycle of poverty and the shortfalls of the current welfare system often while on the campaign trail in 2010. But the Republican didn’t just talk the talk. He lived it.
One of 18 children, LePage grew up in Lewiston, Maine, and lived in poverty throughout his childhood. His earliest memories are riddled with tragedy, LePage revealed in a candid interview with the Portland Press Herald in 2014. He said he remembers his house almost burning to the ground, remembers his father kicking him on the ground when he was 11 years old, and remembers tripping over his brother’s dead body in their home.
After an especially brutal incident with his father, who drank heavily on the weekends, left him with a broken nose and jaw, LePage left home at just 11 years of age. The future governor held a variety of jobs when he wasn’t at school, delivering groceries and gathering empty glass bottles for a Pepsi-Cola truck driver he befriended. Those odd jobs gave way to work in a bakery and, eventually, entrance to Husson College in Bangor.
It’s at that point in his life where LePage said he wants his memories to begin. Some of LePage’s 17 siblings, meanwhile, traveled a much different path. Some died, others cycled on and off the welfare rolls, and others spent time in jail.
LePage’s formative years gave him a front row seat to the ways that welfare traps people in poverty, so much so that when running for governor in 2010, he made welfare reform a centerpiece of his campaign.
“I was born into this,” LePage told The Daily Signal last year. “I understand it. I come from a family of 18 kids. I watched it my whole life.”
After besting Independent Eliot Cutler in the 2010 gubernatorial race by less than 2 percentage points, LePage and his administration got right to work.
Where LePage is boisterous and blunt, the woman tasked with overseeing the implementation of the governor’s welfare reforms is measured and careful, and spent most of her life as a Democrat. Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, has led the agency since LePage selected her to do so 2011. The two share the same goals of reforming the welfare system, but their experiences with the system differ.
While LePage experienced the welfare system first hand, Maine Democrats initially worried Mayhew didn’t have enough experience with welfare programs. Today, Mayhew has no trouble rattling off the figures for how much her agency spent before and after the reforms were implemented, and can cite the drop in TANF caseloads and individuals on food stamps. But what she primarily focuses on is the people whose lives have been changed by moving from welfare to work.
“It isn’t just the first job. It’s the next job,” Mayhew told The Daily Signal. “It’s the momentum from having that self-confidence, that when one believes in their ability, [they have] the drive to succeed. And government will get in the way of that when it builds and creates dependency. It stifles that individual strength when we’ve designed welfare programs that discourage employment.”
“When we focus on an individual’s disability rather than what they’re capable of, we fundamentally take away from that pathway,” she continued.
When Mayhew took over the state’s largest agency, Maine was ranked sixth in the nation for the percentage of its population on food stamps and sixth in the nation for the percentage of its population in the TANF program, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The state also ranked second for the percentage of its population on Medicaid.
But that’s changed since LePage and Mayhew began enacting reforms to welfare just months after the new administration was in place. In his budget for 2012 and 2013, LePage reinstated the 60-month lifetime cap on eligibility for the TANF program, the program born out of President Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Opportunity Act. The welfare reform of the mid-1990s initially imposed a five-year limit on eligibility in TANF, but states like Maine waived the time limit for several years. After the 60-month time limit took effect in January 2012, the number of individuals in the TANF program dropped from 36,626 to 23,833 by January of the following year, according to the state. Caseloads continued to fall for the next six years, and by January 2017, there were 10,880 individuals enrolled in TANF.
LePage and Mayhew next turned their attention to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps. President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform required adults without children who were between the ages of 18 and 49 to either work at least 20 hours per week, volunteer six hours per week, or participate in a vocational training program in order to receive food stamps. State officials could ask the federal government to waive the work requirement for childless adults if their state had high unemployment or job shortages, and Maine did just that every year since 2008.
What we all know and appreciate is that a job is more than just the income it generates. It’s the self-esteem it builds, the self-worth, the self-confidence it restores, and what it means in terms of human dignity.
But in July 2014, LePage and Mayhew announced the state would no longer request a waiver for the work requirement for childless adults on food stamps and focus instead of ensuring that those on food stamps had a job.
“What we all know and appreciate is that a job is more than just the income it generates,” Mayhew said. “It’s the self-esteem it builds, the self-worth, the self-confidence it restores, and what it means in terms of human dignity.”
“Strong, independent individuals build strong families and strong communities,” she continued.
Like with participation in TANF, the state saw a decline in enrollment in the food stamp program. After LePage reinstated the work requirement, caseloads for childless adults on food stamps dropped from 13,332 in December 2014 to 2,678 in March 2015, according to the state. By September 2015, that number fell further to 1,886.
According to a February 2016 report from The Heritage Foundation, the drop in food-stamp caseloads of childless adults can, in part, be attributed to off-the-books employment. The study from scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield noted that by working “hidden jobs,” food stamp recipients didn’t have to report their earnings and could therefore maintain their benefits. But reinstating the work requirement required those recipients to report to welfare offices, which interfered with work. “Faced with a work requirement, many recipients with hidden jobs simply leave the rolls,” Rector and Sheffield wrote last year. “No doubt, a significant part of the rapid caseload decline in Maine involves flushing fraudulent double-dippers out of the welfare system.”
According to an April 2016 report from the Maine Office of Policy and Management, childless adults who left the food stamp program after the work requirement was reinstated saw their incomes grow an average of 114 percent in the year after the policy took effect. For childless adults who continued receiving food stamps and complied with the work requirement, incomes increased 20 percent in the year after it was reinstated.
Childless adults who left the food stamp program after the work requirement was reinstated saw their incomes grow an average of 114 percent in the year after the policy took effect.
Mayhew, who put an emphasis on using data to inform policy decisions when she took the helm of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the information the agency now has proves their reforms were successful.
“We don’t believe that government can be all things to all people,” Mayhew said. “We believe that no one should be dependent on government, and that the best pathway out of poverty is a job, and that government wants to continue to perpetuate its role and function, and we’re trying to reduce the footprint of government in this state to get government out of the way and allow individuals and communities and the state to flourish.”
More Reforms Coming
In addition to reinstating the time limit for TANF and work requirement for childless adults on food stamps, the Department of Health and Human Services began placing photos on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards in April 2014. That policy is intended to reduce the fraudulent use of such cards. LePage’s administration also started requiring drug tests for drug felons applying for welfare, and imposed a $5,000 asset test for households without children receiving food stamps, another provision of federal law that was previously waived.
And LePage and Mayhew aren’t done. Earlier this month, Mayhew’s agency asked the federal government for permission to prohibit food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy soda and candy. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services attempted to do that last year, but the Obama administration denied their request—a move that prompted a fiery response from LePage.
LePage and Mayhew also have a laundry list of policy changes they’re working to codify into state law. Those include asking the legislature to pass bills requiring photos on EBT cards, prohibiting the state from waiving the work requirement for childless adults on food stamps, and further reducing the time limit for TANF from five years to three years.
“What is so critically important for everyone to understand is where Maine started in 2011 as an incredibly entrenched welfare state, where we were leading the country in the percentage of our population enrolled in Medicaid, enrolled in TANF, enrolled in food stamps, and the fact that today, we are in the middle of the pack,” Mayhew said.
Indeed, from 2011 to 2015, Maine fell among the ranking of states with the highest percentage of the population enrolled in Medicaid, food stamps, and TANF. The state now ranks 24th for people on Medicaid, 23rd for people on food stamps, and 25th for people on TANF.
‘It Can Be Done’
Today, Maine’s welfare reforms have been billed as a success. And with Republicans now controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, a door has opened for GOP lawmakers to look to Maine as a model for what can be accomplished at the federal level.
Support is already building. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), introduced legislation last year based on Maine’s reforms and the 1996 welfare reforms. Their bill, called the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act, implements stricter work requirements for childless adults and focuses on helping food stamp recipients with job training and job searches.
Jordan said he plans to introduce the legislation again this year. “We just have way too many policies in place that are disincentivizing work,” Jordan told The Daily Signal. “We want to [and] we should incentivize work. Work is good. It’s one of the things that makes America such a special place—we have this tremendous work ethic.”
Additionally, House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled his own anti-poverty plan last year that, among other things, would require childless adults participating in the food stamp and TANF programs to work. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, hasn’t formally committed to pursuing welfare reform at the federal level, but at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, he hinted that it could be coming.
“It’s time for all Americans to get off of welfare and get back to work,” the president said at the annual gathering of conservatives. “You’re going to love it.”
Republicans in Congress already have a lot they want to accomplish legislatively this year—Obamacare’s repeal, tax reform, securing the border, and passing a budget for 2018. But despite their busy schedule, Jordan said GOP lawmakers still have an appetite for welfare reform.
“It’s just common sense,” he said. “It’s treating taxpayers with respect, and it’s going to help those individuals depending on a government program get to a better position in life.”
Mayhew, on the other hand, is more skeptical about Congress’s ability to get welfare reform across the finish line. “I am concerned that individuals in Congress will still be too consumed with their re-election and not focused enough on the future of this country that depends on having the right decision made today,” she said. “The level of disruptive change that needs to occur cannot be overstated.”
Mayhew said at her own agency, she faced obstacles in the form of both personnel and infrastructure. There was an “entrenched culture” within the bureaucracy, she said, and the technology within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services was antiquated, which initially limited her ability to gather reliable data. But in the six years since LePage and Mayhew took office, the state has invested in a forecasting model to analyze the effectiveness of their reforms.
Mayhew expects President Trump will face many of the obstacles she and LePage did, but on a much grander scale. Still, her message to policymakers in Washington, D.C., is simple.
“It can be done,” she said. “Against all odds, against all odds in Maine, we’ve transformed Maine’s DHHS welfare programs. […] Not only have we done it, but we’re stronger today for having advanced these reforms. We’re stronger economically, we have more plentiful jobs available, we are contributing to a brighter economic future for the individuals and families in this state, and the exact same debate needs to be occurring in
Mayhew expects President Trump will face many of the obstacles she and LePage did, but on a much grander scale. Still, her message to policymakers in Washington, D.C., is simple.
“It can be done,” she said. “Against all odds, against all odds in Maine, we’ve transformed Maine’s DHHS welfare programs. […] Not only have we done it, but we’re stronger today for having advanced these reforms. We’re stronger economically, we have more plentiful jobs available, we are contributing to a brighter economic future for the individuals and families in this state, and the exact same debate needs to be occurring in Washington.”
Ms. Quinn is a senior news reporter for The Daily Signal.