It’s Time to End Child Poverty in Maine

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Too many Maine children are living in deep poverty. Between2011 and 2015, the rate of deep child poverty in Maine increased faster than in any other state in the nation.

Growing up in poverty has lifelong consequences for individuals and our communities. Children growing up in poverty go on to complete less schooling, work less, and earn less than others over their lifetime.[i]

It does not have to be this way.  In recent years, policymakers have made choices in the name of “reform” that have actually made things worse instead of better.  If we don’t act now to alter this course we will live with the consequences for decades to come.

Some quick facts about child poverty in Maine:

  • Approximately 43,000 Maine children are living in poverty—about $20,000 a year for a family of 3.[ii]
  • Of thoes, almost 20,000 are living in deep poverty—half of the poverty level or $10,000 a year or less.[iii]
  • From 2011 to 2015, the proportion of Maine children in deep poverty increased at a rate 8 times the national average, and more than twice the New England average.[iv]
  • In 2015, while 20,000 children were living in deep poverty, only 6,900 children received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to help meet their basic needs.[v]
  • This year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Maine 23rd in the nation for children’s overall economic well-being, down five slots from its ranking as 18th the previous year. In New England, only Rhode Island had a lower rank.[vi]

Maine’s Safety Net for Children is Woefully Inadequate.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is intended to provide aid to impoverished families so they can meet their basic needs and get the skills needed to sustain employment. Unfortunately, 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.

In addition, the TANF benefit does not come close to meeting basic needs. The maximum benefit for a family of three is $485 a month. The benefit provided in Maine is the lowest in New England and has not been increased since 2001.

TANF’s role in helping poor Maine children and families meet their basic needs has decreased over time.  The TANF to child poverty ratio is calculated by dividing the average number of children receiving TANF cash assistancevii by the number of children in poverty for that year.viii

In 2011, 35% of children living in poverty got help from the TANF program.  That percentage dropped by more than half to 16% of poor children in 2015, the most recent month for which comparative data is available.[ix]

A study conducted by the University of Maine on the impact of families losing assistance due to thefive-year timelimit revealed harsh consequences. These families saw an increase in hunger and homelessness, oftenleading to separationof parents from children. The median income of families that lost assistance was a mere $260 a month, or $3,120 a year.[x]  Data from Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) showed that more than half of families terminated did not have a high school diploma or a GED, which in part explains such low earnings.[xi]

As the poorest Maine children fall farther behind those in other states, press accounts show that Maine has failed to spend a staggering $155.5 in federal TANF dollars intended to promote their wellbeing.[xii]

Now is the time for a smart, common sense overhaul of the welfare system that focuses first and foremost on creating an effective path out of poverty for Maine families who are living on the brink. 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-allapproach 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.The funds are there to make this happen.  Millions of federal TANF funds intended to help poor children are currently goingunspent.

Welfare and poverty reduction have become unnecessarily divisive issues, and Maine’s children are paying the price. Regardless of our political views, most of us agree that all children should have access to basics like food, shelter, or medicine.   It is time that government officials and policymakers put politics aside and step up to ensure that all Maine kids get a good start at life and a fair shake.  Our collective future depends on it.

[iv] Maine Center for Economic Policy analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey data

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