Ensuring Maine’s prosperous future begins with making sure our youngest residents have the opportunities that promote healthy development. Unfortunately, the Bangor Daily News reported recently that federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, which are intended to help low-income families with children, may have been redirected to programs for the elderly. If this is the case, officials from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services have made it more difficult for working families to get out and stay out of poverty. While funding services for elderly and disabled Mainers is important, it is critical that federal TANF dollars be used for their statutorily mandated purpose under federal law, which is to “provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes.”

We also learned recently, with the release of the 2016 Kids Count Data Book, that more Maine children live in poverty than before the recession. In addition, one in three live in households where parents lack secure employment. That is 82,000 children in Maine — more than the entire populations of Bangor, Augusta and Biddeford combined.

For these children, TANF is critical to fill the gaps and provide parents with the tools they need to get and maintain a job, heat their homes, pay their rent and put food on the table. TANF is what helps keep these children from going without basic essentials, which is why the possible misdirection of federal dollars is alarming.

At the same time, it is clear that TANF is not reaching all those in need. Since 2010, the number of Maine children living in extreme poverty has gradually increased, while the number of children receiving TANF has declined dramatically. One should expect the opposite — that as child poverty increases, more children should receive TANF. Yet, in 2014, 23,000 children were living in extreme poverty compared with roughly 10,000 children receiving TANF. In other words, twice as many children were in need of TANF than were receiving it.

Right now, state spending on TANF is evaluated based on caseload reduction, which does not necessarily indicate that children are moving out of poverty. In fact, it can often signal the opposite — that caseloads are lower because we have failed to use intended funds to help children in need. A better way to evaluate state spending on TANF would be to measure the program’s efficacy by looking at the number of children lifted out of poverty.

Fortunately, Sen. Angus King has introduced bipartisan legislation to provide children and families with a better path out of poverty. By streamlining TANF’s focus, addressing the costs of child care and seeking to get parents reliable, good-paying jobs, King’s plan is directed at challenges that Maine’s economy presents to struggling families.

If we want Maine children to thrive, we need to reduce the number of children living in poverty. That starts with supporting and properly administering effective anti-poverty programs, while creating an economy that works for everyone.

Rita Furlow is senior policy analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance.