AYP0716154It recently came to light that the LePage administration has been withholding millions of federal funds intended for cash assistance for low-income families through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). As a result, the state’s TANF caseload has been reduced by 60 percent despite an increase in need. In fact, the number of children living in extreme poverty in Maine has increased by nearly 50 percent from 2010 to 2014.

The LePage administration has begun to use these federal funds for other purposes in order to save state resources. In many cases, TANF funds are replacing funds already allocated in the state budget.

Cash assistance for families is critical to a child’s physical health, educational achievement and overall well-being. Additional cash income is necessary for economic mobility – parents and caregivers provide for their children through paying rent, transportation to work, as well as goods and services to improve their development and educational attainment.

A 1999 study out of Britain found that low-income families who received additional cash through the UK’s child allowance prioritized this additional cash to purchase items for their children such as books and toys that would improve their development. However, it is unlikely that there would be many dollars left over for books and toys when the TANF benefit is $485 a month.

A 2012 study shows that an additional $1,000 of income can raise children’s test scores by 6 percent in the short term. Studies out of North Carolina found that children in American Indian families who received additional income through casino profits experienced improved educational and mental health outcomes.

Maine was a leader in portraying how a cash assistance program can improve a family’s economic mobility by providing support to help parents pursue higher education. In 1997, through bipartisan support, Maine created the Parents as Scholars program which allowed parents receiving TANF to fulfill their work requirement by attending two- and four-year college programs.

Research shows that parents who participated in the Parents as Scholars program were more likely to find jobs that allowed them to sufficiently provide for their families. Yet since 2011 this program has been severely limited. The first step that Maine should take is to fully restore the Parents as Scholars program.

In addition, Maine needs to reform the implementation of TANF to spend a majority of its funds on the core purposes of TANF, such as cash assistance to low-income families. While spending in the areas of child welfare, family tax credits, and domestic violence services and prevention are also critical to Maine’s families and should be fully funded, they are not a substitute for cash assistance. TANF federal funds should not be used to avoid Maine’s responsibility to provide state funds for these other programs.

Finally, child poverty reduction should be made an explicit goal of TANF, and the program should be evaluated based on its ability to reduce the number of children living in poverty. This will help to ensure that the state government is held accountable for using TANF funds effectively and for the core purpose of improving the economic mobility and well-being of low-income families with children.

Maine has a chance to be a national leader once again. By making these reforms, it would set an example for federal policy and improve the lives of not only families in Maine, but across the U.S.