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Rep. Kim Olsen (R-Phippsburg)
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For Immediate Release

Date: 10/11/12

Rep. Olsen Op-Ed: The economic imperative of Maine's welfare reform

To the Times Record

By Rep. Kimberly Olsen

On September 20, a Rasmussen poll reported that 64 percent of adults think too many Americans are dependent on government for welfare and related services.

The poll highlights an issue that has drawn a lot of attention and has now become part of the presidential race. In this "land of the free and the home of the brave," a stunningly large number of Americans now depend on public assistance. In August, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, in 2011, well over 100 million Americans were enrolled in at least one welfare program run by the federal government. That's about a third of the country.

These figures do not include Social Security or Medicare - programs that recipients pay into. They do, however, include the 46.4 million people on food stamps, up from 31.9 million four years ago. Food stamps are now called SNAP - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - costing taxpayers more than $71 billion a year. In Maine, the program is administered by state and local agencies.

The 100 million recipients also include the 54 million Americans on Medicaid, up from 34 million in 2000. Medicaid was supposed to help the poorest of the poor. When it started, in 1965, about 2 percent of the nation was on the program. Now, one out of every six Americans is enrolled, including more than 300,000 Mainers. A combined federal-state program, Medicaid costs the federal government more than $270 billion per year.

Another big federal program administered by states is TANF - Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This is a cash welfare program that requires recipients to meet certain employment standards. Nearly 5 percent of Maine's population is enrolled in TANF.

Across the country, states are struggling with their share of the mushrooming costs of welfare as the slack economy drags on and tax revenues remain low. Few states have been as hard hit as Maine, which has long had one of the most generous welfare systems in the country. We are one of only nine states, for example, that provides TANF benefits to convicted drug felons and one of just six states that award food stamps to non-citizen immigrants. Mainers recognize the need for welfare reform; numerous polls show it to be a high-priority issue of Maine voters.

Governor LePage, campaigning for office, promised he would bring Maine's welfare system under control and closer to the national norm. He understood that the cost had become a terrible burden on Maine taxpayers, but he also knew the psychological damage that welfare inflicts. President Franklin Roosevelt summed it up aptly in his 1935 State of the Union speech. "Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber," he said. "To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."

As Gov. LePage and the new Legislature got to work in 2011, Maine ranked second in the nation in all three of the biggest welfare programs - Medicaid, TANF and food stamps. No other state ranked even in the top 12 for all three as a percentage of population.

The biennial budget for 2012-2013 and follow-up supplemental budgets made a number of reforms to provide better stewardship of taxpayers' money. They also sought to curb the culture of dependency and ensure that the programs survived for the truly deserving.

For one thing, the reforms capped TANF benefits at five years, the federal standard, ending unlimited lifetime benefits. Exceptions are allowed for cases of extreme hardship, including for the elderly and the disabled. The changes also require that convicted drug felons be drug tested as a condition of receiving TANF. Sanctions were instituted for TANF recipients who violate program rules.

The Legislature also passed measures tightening eligibility for MaineCare (Medicaid). A cap was placed on non-categorical childless adults, and coverage was eliminated for 19- and 20-year-olds (a benefit provided by only a handful of states). Eligibility was lowered from 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) to 133 percent for many MaineCare recipients. Most states cut off eligibility at 100 percent of the FPL, so Maine is still relatively lenient.

Moreover, drug addicts on the state-funded methadone program will be limited to two years of treatment, and generic drugs will be substituted for brand name products for certain MaineCare patients.

Altogether, the changes are too numerous to mention, but the Legislature made serious headway in bringing our welfare system more in line with national averages while ensuring that vital services will be there for the state's most vulnerable residents. ###

State Rep. Kimberly Olsen (R-Phippsburg), a carpenter and home builder, serves on the Marine Resources Committee.

Jay Finegan
Maine House Republicans
Tel: (207) 287-1445