This school year, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is spending $1.7 million on after-school programs that once would have gone to low-income families with children in the form of cash assistance.

The administration has described the change as a way to “better support our youth,” but anti-poverty program experts decried it as an ineffective way to keep kids clothed and fed at a time when the rate of Maine children living in deep poverty has been rising.

“After-school programs don’t pay the rent, and they don’t keep kids in underwear. They don’t keep the parents in underwear,” said Luke Shaefer, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan and coauthor of the book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.”

A BDN review of state contracting documents shows more than a dozen nonprofit organizations are receiving more than $1.7 million this school year from the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, grant. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has awarded more than 80 percent of the funds without using the state’s formal competitive bidding process, the documents show. The department says that’s part of an effort to fund programs outside of southern Maine.

The federal government distributes the TANF grant to states ostensibly so they can provide cash assistance to low-income families and help them find work. But since the grants come with few legal restrictions, states have used them to cover a range of other expenses, including marriage classes in Oklahoma and private college scholarships in Michigan.

Since 2012, the number of low-income families with children in Maine who receive cash assistance has fallen by two-thirds, causing the state to amass a pot of millions in unspent federal TANF funds. The LePage administration has touted using some of that money on after-school programs as a benefit of eliminating the cash benefits.

“Through effective welfare policy and sound fiscal management, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has been able to prioritize spending to better support our youth and promote a more successful pathway to independence,” read a DHHS news release in April announcing a visit by then-Commissioner Mary Mayhew to one of the after-school programs receiving TANF funding.

But the after-school programs account for less than 2 percent of the LePage administration’s reworked spending of the $78.1 million TANF grant the state receives each year. Instead, the administration is tapping much of the unused federal funding so it can avoid using state taxpayer funds.

A BDN review in June showed the state planned to spend most of the funds — after paying for cash benefits for the remaining TANF beneficiaries, employment services and administrative expenses — on pre-existing state social service obligations to free up the state funds normally devoted to those expenses. Those expenses accounted for a third of the LePage administration’s planned TANF spending for this fiscal year.

[What LePage really plans to do with $100M meant for Maine families in poverty]

Maine’s shift in TANF spending comes more than two decades after lawmakers in Washington, D.C., transformed the nation’s welfare cash assistance program into a system of block grants distributed to states with few restrictions on their use — an approach Republicans have championed in a number of policy areas.

“To the extent that Maine has diverted money that’s earmarked for poor people and for cash assistance to other things and treated it like a slush fund, it actually harms the longer-term conservative project of federalism because it signals that the state is not a credible steward of federal money,” said Samuel Hammond, poverty and welfare policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

Preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies

The state’s use of TANF funds for after-school programs got its start in the fall of 2015. That’s when Maine DHHS issued a request for proposals for “programs that focus on improving employment and independence outcomes for low-income youth” that the department could fund using TANF.

The department asked bidders to demonstrate how their proposals conformed with two of the four purposes for TANF outlined in federal law: preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and encouraging “the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.”

“[T]here is a clear statistical relationship between staying in school and lower teen pregnancy rates,” the request for proposals stated. “Thus, we would conclude that special initiatives to keep teens in school are reasonably related to the third purpose of TANF — to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies.”

Westbrook’s My Place Teen Center was one of the bidders, and the organization is now in its second year of receiving TANF funding, said President and CEO Donna Dwyer. The organization is receiving $129,000 a year from DHHS, and My Place Teen Center expects funding at least until April 2019.

“If we do our job, we reduce the lines at the TANF office, and these people have a future that is productive and they have a skill set and they do not need government assistance,” Dwyer said, referring to the teens participating in My Place Teen Center programs.

With TANF funding, the teen center has expanded its Youth Leadership Academy for middle- and high-school students, and made it a regular feature of its after-school programming. As part of the academy, about 60 students (out of 500 who use the teen center) commit to participating regularly in activities that stress health and wellness, social-emotional skills, career readiness and civic engagement.

“This Youth Leadership Academy, to the degree it’s being implemented today, was never realized prior to the TANF funding. It was always a small-scale type of project,” she said. “They helped us bring it to fruition and allowed us to fully scale it.”

My Place Teen Center mostly relies on private donations and grants for funding. But until 2012, the teen center also had some state funding. It received money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, the account funded by legal settlement money the state receives every year from tobacco companies. That funding stream ended when lawmakers and LePage reduced the amount of Fund for a Healthy Maine money devoted to social services.

The availability of TANF funds now is “refreshing,” Dwyer said. “If your nonprofit is living in a state of poverty as well, it’s doesn’t allow us to have programs like this, and this is a very sophisticated, intense program.”

A DHHS spokeswoman didn’t directly address questions from the BDN about how the department ensured it was supporting the highest-quality after-school programs with TANF, the number of children served by the after-school programs receiving TANF funds, the number of kids who wouldn’t be able to participate in after-school programs if not for the TANF funding, and the analysis DHHS used to decide how it would spend the state’s TANF grant.

“DHHS is committed to helping families and youth,” DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer wrote in an email. “Before and after school programming is a proven strategy to help boost academic performance and reduce risky behaviors. We encourage innovative, community based programming that keeps our youth engaged and away from behaviors that can have negative consequences which can follow them for a lifetime. These programs meet the goals of TANF and, more importantly, they keep kids off the streets — safe and engaged in positive behaviors.”

[How $13M in unlawful spending took shape in Mary Mayhew’s DHHS]

Geographic diversity

In response to its request for youth program proposals, DHHS didn’t receive many bids from outside of southern Maine, so the department has awarded more than 80 percent of the funds for after-school programs without using the state’s formal, competitive bidding process, according to state contracting documents.

That’s how Fair Haven Camps in the rural Waldo County town of Brooks became the site of one of the TANF-funded after-school programs.

In the summer, Fair Haven Camps is a Christian overnight camp. This fall, for the first time, it welcomed 17 students from Mount View Middle School in nearby Thorndike after school each day for outdoor activities in wilderness survival, arts and crafts, and lessons in financial literacy provided by volunteers from Bangor Savings Bank.

Tristan Starbird, Fair Haven Camps’ executive director, said the after-school program, which began Nov. 1, grew out of discussions with Regional School Unit 3 administrators, who identified a need for after-school programming in the rural school district that covers Brooks and 10 other Waldo County towns.

“What we want to do is meet that need, and this block grant kind of provided a way for us to launch it full speed,” Starbird said, “so we’re very thankful to be able to do this.”

A “Charitable Choice” provision that applies to the 1996 federal law that created TANF allows states to issue public funds to religious organizations such as Fair Haven Camps as long as the organizations don’t use those funds to pay for what federal regulations label “inherently religious activities.”

In Washington County, DHHS approached the nonprofit Maine Seacoast Mission, which runs the EdGE after-school programs at six elementary schools, about the possibility of TANF funding, said Charlie Harrington, the EdGE program’s director.

The organization now has a $30,000 contract with DHHS that’s funding a new after-school program, at Narraguagus Junior/Senior High School in Harrington. The program is Maine Seacoast Mission’s first for older students. It’s attracted 25 seventh- through 10th-grade students who can receive homework help and participate in recreational activities such as hiking, rock climbing and sports. Harrington said the Maine Seacoast Mission hopes soon to offer activities that expose students to different careers.

The largest sum the state has issued for after-school programs, $733,000, will go to the 16 Boys and Girls Club sites around the state. The clubs will work on getting more of their members — specifically low-income children — to attend after-school programming more regularly, said Bob Clark, who leads the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Maine.

“To get members even moving from an average of once a week to twice a week can be a huge thing in terms of driving those outcomes,” such as academic success, leadership skills and healthy lifestyles, Clark said.

The state’s Boys and Girls Clubs have spoken with DHHS officials for years about the possibility of funding from TANF, which is a funding source for clubs in a number of other states, Clark said.

After school vs. cash assistance

After-school programs offer supervised places for kids after school hours, but not all programs are created equal.

Research has shown that after-school programs can have positive effects on academic achievement, and students’ development of social skills and work habits. However, whether a program has positive effects depends heavily on its design: whether students attend regularly; whether the program has strong partnerships with local schools, community organizations and families; and whether it offers high-quality enrichment activities.

But funding after-school programs with TANF is another matter, said Hammond of the Niskanen Center, the Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank.

“They’re trying to reduce the caseload rolls and then use a fraction of the money to do something noble sounding,” he said.

The number of Maine families with children receiving TANF cash assistance has fallen from nearly 12,800 in May 2012, when a five-year limit on that assistance took effect, to 4,200 in December. The number of children receiving assistance fell from 22,400 to 7,400 in that period.

The proportion of Maine children living in deep poverty — with family incomes of half the federal poverty level or less — grew 1.1 percentage points between 2011 and 2015, to 8 percent, while it grew 0.2 percentage points nationally, to 9.5 percent, according to calculations from the Maine Center for Economic Policy that used three-year averages from U.S. Census data to calculate poverty rates.

Research available on safety net programs that bolster family income — the sort of assistance that has ended for the more than 8,000 Maine families since 2012 — shows that they contribute to improved school performance for the children in those families as well as improved health and long-term earning power.

Plus, cash assistance available through TANF tends to affect a population that after-school programs don’t reach, said Hammond.

Child poverty “really spikes in that first five-year period when your kids are not at school for six, seven hours a day,” he said. “I think it’s really moving resources away from what TANF is supposed to be used for, but it’s also moving resources away from a vulnerable community to a less vulnerable community and counting that as a win.”

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News.

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