The Problem isn’t a Lack of Motivation And the Solutions are Bigger than any one Individual
“I work too hard to be this poor,” said a woman who recently contacted Maine Equal Justice. This statement resonates for a reason. Today in Maine, people are trying to find good jobs with decent wages, but even people working 40 hours a week often can’t make enough money to make ends meet. Many of the jobs that are available are part time with unreliable hours and unpredictable schedules.
Despite this difficult economic reality, Maine’s anti-poverty programs have been decimated. Since 2011, the state has cut income support to nearly 9,000 Maine families—affecting more than 16,000 children. More than 40,000 Mainers have lost their MaineCare coverage. The number of children living in deep poverty has increased 50 percent, and Maine now has the third highest rate of serious hunger in the nation.
Some claim that the cuts to these programs will motivate people to get jobs and become independent. A lack of motivation is not the problem. Recent data provided by Maine Medical Center’s Department of Vocational Services that performs job-readiness assessments affirmed what we already know from our work with parents receiving TANF: parents want to provide for their children through work. Of those parents who are not working, 77% of TANF participants reported a strong or urgent need to change their employment status.
Very real barriers get in the way of parents’ desire to work. Living in poverty brings hardship that is challenging in and of itself. More than two-thirds of parents who participate in TANF have received mental health treatment or counseling, and anxiety and depression are commonplace. This is not surprising given the difficult lives that many have lived. The data from MMC also tells us that 61% report having experienced abuse during their lifetime. Of those, almost half have been sexually abused and 81% have been physically abused. These numbers represent survivors – they are resilient and resourceful. But no matter how strong and determined someone is, external systemic barriers can get in the way.
Work is impossible if you can’t get there and don’t have affordable childcare. In most parts of Maine, you aren’t going to make it to and from work without a reliable car. If childcare costs take almost all of your paycheck, leaving your young children with a stranger may not make good financial sense. In many parts of Maine, the jobs just aren’t available, even if a family does have childcare and transportation.
For some, the problem is a lack of education or job training needed to get those jobs. Of parents receiving TANF who are not in school, 53% expressed a strong or urgent need to change their educational status. They know that education is a clear pathway out of poverty. More than half of the parents who lost TANF due to time limits in 2011 lacked a high school degree or the equivalency. These parents lost access to welfare, but they did not gain access to reliable work. The jobs that are available to people with limited education or training often pay so little that these workers still need public assistance to make ends meet. For parents who lost help due to time limits this option has been eliminated. Some were separated from their children as a result of losing their housing.
The picture does not have to be all doom and gloom, however. There are policy solutions that can reduce the barriers and increase opportunity so more people can take meaningful steps to improve their lives. Policymakers need to act to bring about real reform; there are evidence-based solutions they can put in place today with existing resources. For example, policymakers could do more to fix the “welfare cliff” that penalizes people who increase their work hours or wages by cutting their assistance. They could expand Maine’s nationally-recognized Parents as Scholars program, which has a proven track record of getting low-income families out of poverty by helping parents get a college degree. Making assistance programs more efficient and effective by ensuring that assistance is coordinated across state agencies would be another step in the right direction.
Politics have been standing in the way of progress here in Maine. Unfortunately, this last legislative session, legislators were unable to advance real solutions to these pressing problems. Welfare and poverty reduction have become such politically divisive issues and Maine people are paying the price.
Regardless of our varied political views, most of us believe that government has a responsibility to make sure that children do not go hungry or without basics like shelter or medicine when they are sick. Government officials and policymakers are failing to do their jobs and failing Maine by not taking steps to protect the welfare of Maine children. Worst of all, they are failing the 50,000 Maine children currently living in poverty.
Please join us in helping policymakers understand the kind of reform that Maine people really want—reform that will raise families out of poverty and offer Maine children the chance to realize their full potential. (Click here to get involved!)