When Maine legislators approved a five-year time limit for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, it wasn’t necessarily done with an eye toward improving the program and finding better ways to grow people’s economic independence. It was primarily a budget decision. But the results of the time limit are proving interesting — because it has appeared to spur improvements that could, if done right, benefit families in need.

It’s easy for state and federal assistance programs to apply a generic, wholesale approach to the way they interact with recipients and provide aid. But it’s more effective to give individualized attention to help people overcome the hurdles that caused them to need the assistance in the first place. A more intensive, collaborative approach is especially needed now that TANF’s benefits are limited to 60 months.

And that’s the direction in which the TANF program is heading, in part because employees are motivated by the 60-month lifetime limit. But funding plays a role, too. In budget years 2012 and 2013, the Legislature instituted the time limit on TANF cash assistance, anticipating a savings of $2.5 million. This savings was reflected in a reduction of General Fund dollars to TANF.

But to obtain federal TANF block grant funding, a state must spend a certain amount of state money. Each fiscal year, Maine must spend a minimum of about $40 million in state funds to draw down about $78 million in federal funds. And to meet the requirement, Maine does not have to rely solely on General Fund dollars; it can use funds spent by other programs that fulfill a purpose of TANF and meet certain financial eligibility criteria, such as refundable tax credits spent on needy families. TANF was able to use these sources to meet the state’s funding requirement after the Legislature’s $2.5 million cut, Office for Family Independence Director Dale Denno said.

So the state realized savings of $2.5 million, but the savings didn’t come directly from a reduced number of TANF recipients. In fact, because the program now serves fewer people, TANF actually has more money to devote to programs, Denno said. TANF now serves about 10,000 people, down from about 13,000 before June 2012, though not all of the decrease can be attributed to the time limit. And it’s a good thing it has freed up money because it desperately needs to improve the quality of its programs if it’s going to help prepare people quickly for a job.

For too long, TANF has worked alone. It has also not done a thorough-enough job with its initial evaluations of recipients and work or community placements. Luckily, the department realizes these problems and, largely because of the imposed time limit, is working to fix them. It’s now connecting with the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Department of Labor, to bring together the collective resources of the three agencies and negotiate a data-sharing agreement. At the regional level, it is trying to work closer with universities and community colleges.

It also will soon put out two requests for proposals, Denno said. The first will be to help TANF complete more in-depth vocational assessments of recipients, so they can receive the individualized direction they need to overcome their barriers to work; it’s similar to a bill submitted by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. The second will be to to help TANF find additional workplaces and volunteer opportunities for those in the ASPIRE program (required for most TANF recipients), so they can gain more relevant experience to prepare them for a job.

TANF helps families with children who are deprived of support either because of the death, continued absence, incapacity or underemployment of a parent. It’s task is a big one: to help thousands of people each year, many of whom may have drug addictions, disabilities or no high school education, enter the workforce in order to provide for their children. The state did not plan the implementation of the time limit well, as it took effect before people could benefit from TANF’s improvements. But ultimately it may lead to more effective, individualized help.

Most TANF recipients don’t need the assistance for five years, and those who do likely face significant hardships and may qualify for an exemption or an extension of benefits. The worry is that the extension process won’t be clear, or people may be unfairly denied extensions, and they will turn to local municipalities for help — likely for General Assistance. That’s a reason to monitor the results of the time limit over time, to see if it causes a significant cost shift or if, by freeing up money, it allows TANF to provide a different approach that actually improves recipients’ economic self-sufficiency.