December 30, 2013

our OPINION: DHHS aid rule shift will cost more than it saves

Cutting off General Assistance to asylum seekers could hinder their effort to become productive residents.

They’ve been through a lot, fleeing hunger, violence and political persecution in their home countries. Once they arrive here, though, they don’t have to wait to complete the lengthy asylum process before getting help making a home. Maine is one of the few states where new immigrants can obtain General Assistance vouchers for shelter and other short-term needs right away, solely on financial need, without facing questions about their citizenship status.

Given the LePage administration’s singular focus on welfare reform, however, it’s disappointing but not surprising that General Assistance has become the latest target of efforts to rein in relief programs.

Under a proposed rule change, asylum seekers and some other immigrants will no longer qualify for General Assistance. The Department of Health and Human Services proposal will save the state little, shift more costs to Maine’s financially strapped cities and hurt people who ultimately become productive members of the community.

General Assistance is a state-mandated, locally administered safety net for those who are struggling to pay for housing, food, medicine and other basic necessities but don’t qualify for any other help. It’s awarded in the form of vouchers, not cash; aid for rent, for example, is paid directly to a landlord. It’s not paid out indefinitely; those whose applications are approved are eligible for 30 days, after which they have to reapply.

In Portland, where many of Maine’s asylum seekers settle, most of the people who qualify for and receive General Assistance take part for six months or less. Leonce Ntungwanayo, for example, fled Burundi, a country still recovering from a 12-year civil war, came to Maine in 2011 and is waiting for his asylum application to be processed. Ntungwanayo received General Assistance for five months. He now has his work permit and a job as a pharmacy technician.

Most Maine cities and towns are reimbursed half of their General Assistance costs by the state. A few, including Portland, get a higher state subsidy (90 percent for part of the program) because they provide more assistance. Even so, total state General Assistance spending — $13.2 million in fiscal 2012 — amounted to 0.2 percent of that year’s state budget, and 0.4 percent of the fiscal 2012 Maine DHHS budget. So it’s difficult to see how tightening General Assistance standards would save Maine much money.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to discern how Portland and other service centers would be hurt. In fiscal 2012, Portland property taxpayers funded $2.4 million in General Assistance, and $7.2 million came from the state budget.

Cutting off General Assistance to asylum seekers won’t make the need go away. It will just shift more of the cost to municipalities, which already have lost state revenue sharing funds and could lose still more.

The state’s argument for stricter General Assistance standards doesn’t put the program into context, and it fails to account for unintended consequences. All things considered, the agency would be better off abandoning the proposal.

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