A new 60-month limit on eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits adds an element of urgency to welfare reform in Maine.

The benefits cap has triggered a reduction of more than 3,000 households from Maine’s TANF caseload since January. It is expected to yield $2.5 million in state biennial budget savings.

The governmental implications of that change will likely necessitate some adaptation of the General Assistance program, for which state government and municipalities share costs. A work group continues to study ways to improve General Assistance and will report its findings to the next Legislature.

Portland’s General Assistance administrators have already paid more than $26,700 to families who lost TANF benefits since May, according to Nicole Clegg, the city’s communications director. Other municipalities report similar jumps in General Assistance applications from households that no longer qualify for TANF.

As they consider revamping General Assistance, lawmakers must make it a priority to ensure that the responsibility for supporting families who require assistance after their TANF benefits expire does not simply shift the cost to property taxpayers.

The effect on the lives of families whose eligibility expires will be more difficult to measure than a cost transfer from state to municipal ledgers. The language of welfare programs — with terms such as “caseloads,” “assistance units,” “deprivation factors” and “poverty guidelines” — dehumanizes the people who receive public assistance.

That terminology masks the fact that TANF caseloads are made up primarily of parents and children. Some are domestic violence survivors. Some are disabled. Those conditions won’t change after 60 months.

Part of the ongoing effort to reform welfare must involve removing the stigma that the TANF work requirement should somehow be a punitive process. The 60-month eligibility limit provides an opportunity to encourage a shift in that mindset.

A 2010 Maine Equal Justice Partners survey of TANF recipients shows that 97 percent had work experience. The survey indicates that motivation is not the problem for the majority of TANF recipients. Obstacles to entering the workforce, such as lack of training and affordable child care, are. With the 60-month eligibility limit in place, state government needs to implement policies that emphasize more rapid removal of those barriers.

The 60-month limit puts the onus not just on TANF recipients to set a reasonable timeline for their “journey to independence,” as Dale Denno, director of the Maine office of family independence, described the welfare-to-work process, but also on the state to offer programs that more effectively help people get off welfare for good.

Forcing TANF recipients to fulfill work requirements in the name of instilling a work ethic represents a poor use of state resources. Instead, as Denno noted in pursuing greater collaboration with the Maine Department of Labor, a more intentional, unified approach that relies on data about Maine’s future employment opportunities should shape training programs that better prepare TANF recipients for lasting success in the workforce.

Treating TANF recipients as unemployed workers and giving them full access to the Department of Labor’s vocational assessment, career training and business recruitment tools should be part of that adjustment. So, too, should be an acknowledgement of federal data that show a strong correlation between level of education, wages and likelihood of retaining employment.

Specifically as it relates to public assistance programs, a 2008 report by professors Sandra Butler and Luisa Deprez presents a decade of evidence to demonstrate that the Parents As Scholars program, which makes TANF-like benefits available to full-time college students who meet TANF eligibility guidelines, provides a reliable route to self-sufficiency.

In that survey, 95 percent of the former Parents As Scholars participants reported being employed, with a median wage of $14.31 per hour. Their challenges didn’t disappear, but these Mainers who successfully left the welfare rolls did experience a level of economic stability that aligns with what should be the desired outcome of welfare-to-work programs.

Even with the time constraints imposed by a 60-month TANF eligibility limit, education remains one of the best and most reliable routes out of poverty. Changes in the way the state works with recipients to prepare for life after TANF should reflect that fact.