October 10, 2010

MAINE COMPASS: Welfare reform would benefit the welfare of entire state

Maine’s welfare system offers one of the most generous benefits packages in the nation.

Almost 30 percent of our population receives some form of benefit. Between 2003 and 2010, Maine’s welfare enrollment grew 70 percent (from 226,000 to 381,000), according to a report from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank.

Is that really “Maine, the way life should be?”

Our eligibility limits are among the most generous in the country. Only 12 other states have income limits as high as Maine, and many of those, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, have a much higher cost of living.

Maine ranks second in the nation in all three major welfare programs: Food stamps, cash public assistance (TANF) and in Medicaid enrollment as a percent of total population, according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

We need welfare reform now to preserve the welfare of our entire state.

Though there are many factors which I feel contribute to our state’s welfare woes, I believe one issue needs to be addressed immediately.

In the last legislative session, L.D. 254, a five-point Welfare Reform Program was introduced. This bill would have provided a new hire tax credit for businesses/employers hiring welfare recipients, imposed a 60-month lifetime limitation on ASPIRE-TANF for adults, made changes to the 20-hour work requirement and adjusted benefits to reflect earned income. It also would have imposed a 90-day residency requirement. It is unfortunate that this bill was struck down, because it would have been the first step in the right direction.

The 90-day residency requirement is an often-heard herald from the Republican side of the aisle, while the Democrat side offers arguments about the unconstitutionality of such a requirement.

The 14th amendment applies equal protection to all U.S. citizens under the law. Cited in a case decided in 1969, Shapiro v. Thompson, durational residency requirements conditioning eligibility for welfare were voided if the purpose of the requirements was to inhibit migration by needy persons into the state, or to bar the entry of those who came from low-paying states to higher-paying ones in order to collect greater benefits. The court deemed that purpose was impermissible. This applies to United States citizens.

Though this may limit Maine from imposing residency requirements for one sector; it doesn’t forbid us from imposing them in other instances.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law, a federal welfare reform limiting welfare benefits for most non-citizens. Legal immigrants are ineligible for federally funded benefits in their first five years of residency. Individual states, however, aren’t prohibited from offering benefits to this populace; the availability of benefits is at the states’ discretion and all benefits are exclusively state funded.

Gov. John Baldacci’s executive order in 2004 effectively turned Maine into a sanctuary state. According to the last census in 2000, Maine’s population of illegal immigrants ranged in the thousands.

How many may be currently accessing our tax funded welfare system? How can we possibly know? Maine employees are prohibited from inquiring about immigration status.

A residency requirement could save our state hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in benefits to illegal immigrants as well as immigrants who aren’t qualified to receive benefits under the federal umbrella.

In our current economic climate, Maine people are tightening their belts, many have lost jobs, welfare rolls are skyrocketing and people are struggling under the burden of our welfare system.

Regulatory requirements make Maine one of the worst climates to business and job creation. In a report by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, Charles Colgan, a University of Southern Maine economist, claims that between 1999 and 2009, Maine enjoyed a net gain of only 56 jobs.

Also in the report were findings from U.S. News and World Report, ranking Maine the nation’s fourth-worst state to start a business.

The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit small business advocacy and research group, says Maine has the sixth-worst tax policies in the nation, and in December 2009, reported that Maine had the worst health-care policies in the nation in regard to their impact on cost.

Reforming welfare will take time, but corrective steps can be taken immediately. Maine people are at risk; by taxation to fund this monstrous system or by ensnaring them once they are on it. With an unstable economy, jobs to sustain our families are hard to find and, until they are, we will have a high dependency upon the system.

We must reduce our tax burden and we can do it by reducing the out-of-control spending that has plagued our state for too long.

Recovery begins one step at a time. Let’s take our first step toward protecting Maine people by empowering Maine employers to ask for immigration status before asking, “What can we give you?”

Deb Sanderson of Chelsea is Republican candidate for House District 52 Chelsea, Whitefield, Washington, Somerville, part of Jefferson and Hibbert’s Gore

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