What You Need to Know about State Spending of Federal TANF Funds

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Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is an anti-poverty program intended to ensure that children don’t go without basics like shelter and food, providing modest cash assistance to low income families.  TANF also provides employment and training services and work supports like child care and transportation to help their parents sustain employment.  Most of the funding for TANF comes from the federal government in the form of a block grant.

 
As of July, 2016 the LePage Adminstration had stockpiled millions of dollars ($155 M) in federal TANF funds earmarked for poor children and families while children has gone without the shelter and food  they need.  At the same time, Maine’s children have been falling into deep poverty at an alarming rate compared to their peers nationwide.


Last fall, a state audit determined that DHHS Commissioner Mayhew misspent at least $13.4 million of these federal funds.  Mayhew dismissed the audit findings claiming that the block grant affords the state flexibility in how it uses these funds. Nevertheless the Department repaid the TANF funds that were inappropriately spent.


More recently, Speaker Gideon introduced legislation to put these TANF funds to work to lift children out of poverty.   Governor LePage claimed that TANF funds were not available.  Once pushed, Commissioner Mayhew finally provided the Health and Human Services Committee of the Legislature with some TANF spending information.  


It became clear the Commissioner has been moving TANF funds around without any input from the Legislature, stakeholders, or the public – and worse yet without a comprehensive, evidence-based plan to reduce child poverty in Maine.  Even still, Maine is expected to have an unspent TANF balance of $111M at the end of state fiscal year 2017 (June, 2017).


What We Now Know about Mayhew’s TANF Spending Spree:


Mayhew’s TANF spending is not based on a careful analysis of the most serious problems facing families living in poverty, nor does it propose a systemic, evidence-based strategy to truly reduce poverty among these families.  Instead, she has moved funds into a haphazard list of initiatives many of which were chosen to replace general fund dollars with federal TANF funds.  The top priority for this spending is, simply, to save general fund dollars by using TANF to pay for current expenses.

Despite Mayhew’s claims that DHHS is using funds freed up by huge cuts to the TANF program to implement innovative programs that will improve lives, a very small percentage of the dollars are being spent on initiatives that are new. With the exception of an uncertain amount of funds provided for child care services, the remainder is either supplantation or ongoing spending for basic program elements like cash assistance and employment, education and training services.


Mayhew’s TANF spending ignores Maslow’s hierarchy of needs grounded in the well accepted theory that some needs take precedence over others and our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior.  While spending TANF funds for things like youth mentoring programs, including community service and outdoor adventure education may be worthwhile, basic needs are essential in order for kids to succeed.  After school programs can only go so far if children do not have a stable home to go home to or heat in the winter.


Entirely absent from Mayhew’s spending plan is any initiative to provide greater economic stability to families living in deep poverty.  Mayhew’s plan will do nothing to create more opportunity for parents who are struggling to get ahead.  This Administration totally misses the mark when it comes to providing pathways out of poverty through training and education as enrollment in Parents as Scholars that provides educational opportunity for low-income parents has plummeted under their watch.


As a country, we have invested these federal funds to help children living in poverty.  When TANF dollars are spent wisely, this program can make a big difference for Maine families with children.  The LePage Administration must be held accountable when it comes to putting these federal funds to work in the most effective way to invest in children, our communities and our state.

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