Two years ago, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration touted progress in connecting more public assistance recipients with jobs and valuable work experience: a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the state departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

DHHS started contracting with the labor department so career specialists would work with participants in ASPIRE, the worker training and job placement side of the state and federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Department of Labor would set up TANF recipients with “work experience” — largely unpaid, resume-building volunteer positions with employers — and help to place them in jobs.

“This collaboration takes advantage of each department’s core competencies; it’s a critical element in a client-focused approach to create a pathway to employment,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette said in an April 2014 Bangor Daily News OpEd.

Two years later, the DHHS is changing course with ASPIRE. It plans to leave the worker training and job placement program entirely in the hands of a state contractor starting July 1. Seventy state employees would lose their jobs — 58 to 60 DHHS caseworkers and 12 labor department employees who are serving ASPIRE clients, according to Mary Anne Turowski, the Maine State Employees Association’s political and legislative director.

The move to contract out ASPIRE isn’t actually needed to solve the problem DHHS says it’s trying to solve: the fact that Maine has come up short in meeting TANF work participation rates set by federal law and faces fines as a result. Plus, the contracting move comes without a coherently stated rationale. It’s not clear what a contractor — working in newly established offices and starting from scratch in connecting with educational institutions and employers — will do differently or better.

(A DHHS spokeswoman said the department can’t discuss details about the ASPIRE contract while the request for proposals is pending.)

What’s clear is that, in putting ASPIRE out to bid, DHHS is emphasizing compliance with federal work participation rates above all else. Meanwhile, no state fully meets both federally required work participation requirements — the standard to which DHHS would hold its contractor. And officials from both sides of the aisle agree the work participation rate is a flawed measure of an assistance program’s success.

Under federal law, states must meet an overall work participation rate of 50 percent, meaning 50 percent or more of adult TANF recipients must be working, receiving training, attending school or volunteering at least 30 hours per week. (A state receives no credit for an adult working anything less than 30 hours a week.) States face a 90 percent requirement for adults in two-parent families.

Most states meet their requirements either by shrinking their TANF caseloads — for which they receive credits that allow them to comply while meeting a lower work participation rate — or by counting other populations of low-income, working adults toward the rate, thereby improving the numbers.

“In its current state, the [work participation rate] is entirely process-driven,” Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Department of Children and Families for Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, said in testimony to a U.S. House Ways and Means subcommittee in April 2015. (Anderson was speaking for the Secretaries Innovation Group, to which Mayhew belongs.) “There is currently no outcome-based performance measure established to evaluate success in increasing the employment of low-income families.”

Because the two-parent rate is especially impossible — no state meets the 90 percent threshold — the majority of states simply remove two-parent families from TANF altogether and provide assistance using state funds. “Typically, they can do it in a budget-neutral way where they can swap those dollars for others,” Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said.

When states fall short of their work participation requirements, they face the prospect of federal fines, which the federal government rarely forces states to pay in full — or often at all — if those states file corrective actions plans and meet requirements in future years.

Indeed, Maine has started to meet the overall work participation rate. It reported the second-highest rate in the nation for 2013, according to federal data released Jan. 12. While the state still fell short on the rate for two-parent families, the fact that it’s meeting requirements for 98 percent of the population served through TANF should drastically reduce the amount Maine ultimately owes, Schott said.

Still, Mayhew and DHHS are moving ahead with a contract that stresses work participation rates above all else. The chosen vendor won’t collect the full contract sum unless Maine meets both work participation rates.

If the administration really wanted to make a difference in the lives of low-income residents, it could jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to comply with esoteric federal requirements, then work on a program design actually focused on moving low-income families out of poverty.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...