Earlier this year Dr. Sandy Butler, a professor at the University of Maine - School of Social Work, released her second study in 18 months documenting the experiences of families that lost help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program due to the 60-month time limit.
Together these studies raise serious questions about Maine’s TANF time limit policy and its impact on low-income families. Between June 2012, when TANF time limits were imposed, and December 2013, 26 percent of all families were dropped from TANF due to the new 60-month time limit. Approximately 3,330 families including an estimated 6,000 children lost assistance.
This recent study went back to families that had responded to a 2012 study that could still be reached. Most reported they were worse off or much worse off. Many had experienced greater hardship and/or a disabling condition affecting them or a family member that had gotten worse. While the extent of paid employment did increase for some, these increases were modest and jobs remained unstable and insecure.
Some of the major findings in Dr. Butler’s most recent report include:
Work: Despite claims by those in favor of time limits that more families would go to work, most families in the 2013 Study did not include a working adult. Most of the respondents that were working were doing so despite disabilities; these workers describe their employment status as “insecure”.
The average wage of the 2013 Study respondents was $9.25 per hour, not much different than the $9.00 per hour average earned by 2012 Study respondents. In both cases, their wages were too low to make ends meet.
Disability: The prevalence of disability for families that responded to the 2013 Study is high. Most respondents reported a work-limiting disability themselves; still others reported a child or another adult family member with a disability.
Education: Data provided by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) show that the household head in more than half of all families cut off of TANF did not have a high school diploma or GED. Included in that number are 219 non-English speakers.
Hardships: Nearly one in three families responding to the 2013 Study lost their homes after losing their TANF. Nearly half reported running out of heating fuel and most relied on food banks to have enough to eat.
Time Limit Extensions: The “hardship” extensions that were made part of the 2012 TANF law to protect vulnerable families are not working as intended. Data provided by Maine DHHS indicate that only 23% of all those terminated from TANF received an extension lasting up to six months; only 3% were granted a second extension. The study provides evidence that extensions are not being given to many who need and qualify for them:
While a 2010 Study of TANF families showed that nearly 90% of respondents had a disability themselves or were caring for a disabled family member, only 17% of families cut from TANF received a disability-related extension.
Only 1% of all families cut from TANF received an extension based on domestic violence, yet nearly 25% of respondents to the 2010 TANF Study said that they applied for TANF after leaving an abusive relationship.
‘Sally’ is 32 and has three young children under age 5. One of her children has special needs. She had just started a new job when her TANF benefits were terminated. Losing TANF also meant that she lost the childcare and the travel support that allowed her to work. She had a 45-minute commute to the new job, and paying for childcare on her income was unaffordable so she lost the job and her family became homeless. She was told by DHHS that homelessness did not qualify her for a TANF extension.
‘Marie’ has not been able to find employment since losing TANF. She struggles with both physical and mental health conditions that limit her ability to work. Nevertheless she has never completed an application for disability benefits, saying: “I’d rather work, if I could find a job.” But with just a GED, no transportation and some health-limiting conditions, finding stable employment hasn’t been possible since she lost her TANF benefits.