Of course we need to continually evaluate Maine’s safety net programs for their effectiveness and work to improve them based on solid research. But, contrary to what some would assert about one particular program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, these decisions are complex. In tough economic times, TANF helps put food on the table and keep families in their homes. It also provides assistance to enable low-income Mainers to get and hold onto well-paying jobs.

We need to be thoughtful as to how to modernize this program to help people succeed in a changing economy, and avoid knee-jerk cuts that will put families — and our economy — at greater risk.

The good news is that Maine’s TANF program is doing exactly what it was intended to do since it was passed with bipartisan support in 1997. It provides temporary assistance to those in great need. In fact, the overwhelming majority of TANF beneficiaries are children. Currently, more than 25,000 children in single-headed households don’t have to go without food, shelter or heat thanks in part to this program.

It also prevents Maine’s poverty rate from spiraling out of control. Maine is now in the midrange of states with respect to poverty rates. Maine has improved in this area because of programs such as TANF, which help families and children meet their most basic needs.

TANF provides a pathway to employment and future economic success. Maine has created work incentives to help people leave and stay out of poverty — permanently.

So what is all the fuss about? Recently, the Maine Heritage Policy Center released a report, “Fixing the System,” which lumped state and federal programs — including MaineCare, food stamps and TANF — under the broad term “welfare” to make it look as though Maine spends more on safety net programs than we actually do.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage is calling for TANF recipients to get on a bus to Massachusetts. The tactic of using inflammatory language to scapegoat our most vulnerable populations for political gain has become far too common.

What’s behind the fury? It’s important to remember that TANF was the result of a bipartisan federal welfare reform bill aimed at moving people from welfare to work. Our state Legislature made the program work in Maine with a comprehensive bill that garnered bipartisan support because both sides of the aisle could agree that the goal was to help people leave assistance behind permanently and find employment in family supporting jobs.

And, that’s exactly the result. In 1996, Maine’s TANF caseload was 21,829 families. Before the recession in 2007, the caseload was 12,484. Approximately 65 percent of recipients are on TANF for less than two years.

In fact, one of the authors of “Fixing the System,” Tarren Bragdon, supports the goal of the program. He voted to pass TANF legislation in its current form as a Republican legislator in 1997. Ironically, the program hasn’t changed since then, save for minor changes mandated by Congress in 2006.

So why attack it now?

TANF remains a tiny portion of the state’s General Fund budget — about 1 percent. Moreover, the program serves a relatively small number of households. But, these families are the most vulnerable — they are some of our poorest residents and have very little, if any, political clout.

As a researcher with the University of Maine, I’ve studied TANF and its precursor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, for nearly two decades. I’ve spoken with women for whom the temporary assistance provided by TANF was literally a lifesaver; for themselves and their children. And I’ve advocated for strengthening the services through model programs such as Parents as Scholars, which empowers recipients to access degree programs that will prepare them for well-paying jobs, jobs that will allow them to support their families.

During this election season, let’s focus on the most important and intractable of Maine’s problems: how to create good jobs and a strong economy, protect our environment and quality of place and foster a skilled work force. It’s time to ask candidates, and the think tanks that promote them: “Besides attacking Maine’s tiny but critical safety net programs, what do you stand for?”

Sandy Butler is a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine.