As child poverty increases, LePage admin caught misusing money meant for poor kids

As child poverty increases, LePage admin caught misusing money meant for poor kids

The state office responsible for ensuring government funds are used according to law recently determined that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) misspent $13.4 million in federal money intended to help children living in poverty.  Rather than taking responsibility for this inappropriate diversion of dollars earmarked for poor families with children, DHHS chose to issue a statement casting aspersions on the auditor.

The recent audit highlights “troublesome” practices on the part of DHHS and improper management of federal funds.  Even more concerning is the fact that Maine children are suffering as a result of this mismanagement and the recent policy changes touted by this administration as “reform”.

Sadly, the proportion of Maine children living in deep poverty has increased at a rate that was a staggering 8 times greater than that of the rest of the nation between 2011 and 2015.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is intended to provide support to poor families so they can meet their basic needs and get the skills needed to sustain employment. Fewer and fewer poor children are able to access this help in Maine.  In 2011, the state imposed a lifetime limit on assistance and stricter sanction policies. Over the last five years, approximately 16,000 children have lost access to the basic assistance and support that TANF provides.

A study conducted by the University of Maine on the impact of families losing assistance due to these policy changes revealed harsh consequences. These families saw an increase in hunger and homelessness, often leading to separation of parents from children.

To be clear, TANF assistance is woefully inadequate for those who are still able to access the support it provides. The maximum benefit for a family of three is $485 a month. Supporting two children as a single mom on $485 a month is near impossible. The TANF benefit provided in Maine is the lowest in New England and has not been increased since 2001. But for those families that receive this support it can mean the difference of having a roof over your head and diapers for your baby – it can mean everything for a mom who wants the best for her children.
And now only 16% of poor children in Maine receive this support (down from 35% in 2011).

While Maine’s rate of deep child poverty grows, the State’s TANF balance has also grown–to a staggering $155 million in unspent federal funds.  These are funds intended to help children escape poverty.

Make no mistake; child poverty is not an unsolvable problem that we all need to sit back and accept. There are policy solutions that could improve these children’s lives, and there are federal funds available to make these changes today. Policymakers can, and must, implement real reform—reforms that improve lives and help families lift themselves out of poverty.  They can do that by replacing Maine’s one-size-fits-all approach to welfare; by providing housing help for families at risk of homelessness; and creating systems that hold government accountable when programs just don’t work.

While DHHS blames the auditor for their missteps, there is no excuse for inaction when it comes to addressing growing deep child poverty here in Maine. There is no good excuse for diverting funds intended to help these children. It is time this administration divert some of the time and energy spent on blaming and shaming people to addressing and tackling child poverty in Maine.

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

About author

Robyn Merrill
Robyn Merrill 1 posts

Robyn Merrill is the executive director of Maine Equal Justice, a civil legal aid organization working to find solutions to poverty and improve the lives of people with low income in Maine.

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