The Maine Legislature’s rush to “reform” Maine’s safety net programs has resulted in ill-considered policy changes that have actually undermined important program goals.

Since June 2012, many Maine families with children have become ineligible for the safety-net program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, due to a law passed by the Maine Legislature in 2011. The newly established 60-month lifetime limit on the length of time poor families with children can receive TANF resulted in more than 1,500 families and about 2,700 children losing assistance in the first four and a half months after implementation.

In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — better known as welfare reform — which established the TANF program, replacing the previous Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The purpose of TANF is to provide a safety net for families with children in need and prepare adult participants for economic self-sufficiency through employment.

The federal law imposes a 60-month limit on cash assistance but allows states to use federal funds to extend this limit for up to 20 percent of the state’s caseload, recognizing that some families face significant barriers to employment. Before the newly established state time limit law, Maine had never exceeded the 20 percent federal extension for families exceeding the 60-month time limit.

Most families in Maine and nationally receive TANF for short periods of time, generally less than two years. Those who remain on the program for longer periods of time face multiple barriers to economic self-sufficiency. A 2010 study found that 90 percent of Maine families receiving TANF for five years or more had an adult with a work-limiting disability and/or a child or other family member with a disability.

While the new state law allows families reaching the 60-month limit to apply for a six-month extension if they face hardships, such as having a disability or caring for a disabled family member, a new study investigating the consequences of this law found that many families were not receiving extensions despite work-limiting disabilities (39 percent) or having a child or other family member with a disability (26 percent). I completed the study in collaboration with Maine Equal Justice Partners between August and October, and it will be released later this month.

Moreover, more than two-fifths of the survey respondents had less than a high school degree, leaving this group of individuals unprepared for today’s labor market. Only 5 percent of the job vacancies expected in Maine in the next five years are projected to accept employees with less than a high school diploma.

Among the survey respondents, 40 percent had no household income whatsoever; the median income was only $260 per month. Not surprisingly, the loss of TANF income has led to many hardships for these families, including loss of housing (20 percent), utility disconnections (35 percent) or not having enough food (33 percent). Such destitution is affecting the thousands of children living in these families. We know that extreme poverty has severe negative consequences for children’s brain development that affects their prospects for the rest of their lives. We can do better than this in Maine.

Certain policy changes could be implemented to help the TANF program better meet its goals. Maine could implement individualized needs assessments and intensive case management for families on TANF to help them become job ready or access another source of income, such as disability benefits. House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, has introduced a bill (LR 1617) proposing such case management, which would be a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, the hardship extensions for families reaching their 60-month time limit could be applied more fairly and uniformly throughout the state — as the new study found that many families that qualify for an extension are not receiving one. Finally, an extension could be established for those families who are not able or prepared to secure employment whether due to learning disabilities, lack of education, cognitive impairment or living in a region with very high unemployment.

The General Assistance Workgroup, created in 2012 through legislative mandate, included just such recommendations in its final report and will recommend legislation to expand TANF extensions. General Assistance programs, which rely on local and state funding, have been hard hit by the effect of the TANF time-limit law, as families without income have turned to their towns to avoid homelessness and hunger.

While the TANF time limit was proposed in part as a way to save money, that is not the end result. Much of this cost has simply been shifted to local towns, food banks, or local churches, already hard-pressed to meet local need.

The purpose of TANF is to protect children by providing a safety net and to help individuals become job ready. The 60-month time limit law as currently implemented does neither. Instead of arbitrary time limits, we should improve the program so it offers a path to a more secure future for families with children.

Sandy Butler is a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.