Maine's Trumpian governor, Paul LePage, has redirected $1.7 million of funds meant to ease the burdens of families living in poverty to after-school programs, the Bangor Daily News reported last week. The money is coming from a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), established in 1996 for the purpose of alleviating poverty and helping low-income people find employment. It seems like an odd choice to use that money instead on programs like My Place Teen Center, which has lots of fun movie nights and vaguely defined team-building exercises but is not in the business of making sure families living in poverty can pay rent or get enough clothes to hold down a job.
The president and CEO of My Place Teen Center, Donna Dwyer, defended using funds originally intended as welfare by telling the Bangor newspaper that it's bad if "your nonprofit is living in a state of poverty as well." The Maine Department of Health and Human Services justified this decision by claiming that these programs are necessary "to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies," a particularly strange excuse, since teen pregnancies have declined for years now, almost certainly because of increased contraception use rather than after-school programs.
The reason for the shift is likely ideological. LePage is an ardent opponent of welfare, and he heavily pushes the two repeatedly disproved myths that welfare fraud is rampant and that people are on welfare because they're too lazy to work. He's been steadily "reforming" welfare in the state, which conservatives like to pretend means putting recipients to work but usually just means abandoning them to homelessness and despair. This is one more move by LePage's administration to prop up right-wing myths about poverty while denying people the help they need.
LaDonna Pavetti, the vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told Salon that many after-school programs are good for kids, but their funding "shouldn’t be coming from money that was originally intended to make sure that the poorest families had enough cash assistance to meet their basic needs . . . to help them find jobs and to support them when they got those jobs.”
Sadly, Maine is not alone in its dubious decision to redirect welfare money away from families living in poverty and towards things like after-school programs. Ever since TANF began two decades ago, states have gradually shifted it away from core anti-poverty programs and towards other programs that, however worthy they might be, aren't nearly as helpful in accomplishing the program's stated mission. In many cases, Pavetti said, the people benefiting from the non-welfare programs have significantly higher incomes than the people the program was set up to help.
States have grown bolder about siphoning off TANF funds from anti-poverty programs to fund other state programs. Only half of TANF money is being spent directly on cash assistance, child care and work support. Some states spend less than 20 percent of their TANF funding on these core concerns. Unsurprisingly, many of the states that have done the most to cut off assistance to people in poverty are those run by Republican governors and legislatures.
As Slate reported last year, some states use TANF money on marriage counseling programs, often attended by middle-class couples who have no need of financial assistance. Marketplace found that Michigan has started using TANF money for college scholarships, half of which go to middle- and upper-class families. When he was governor of Indiana, Mike Pence redirected $3.5 million in TANF funds to "crisis pregnancy centers," anti-abortion outfits that often disguise themselves as clinics in order to lure in women seeking abortions -- so they can talk them out of it, frequently using lies and bullying to do so.
This last item hits on another troubling aspect of the widespread TANF misuse: Republicans are often lavishing money meant for needy families on religious organizations, ignoring constitutional concerns about using taxpayer money to promote religion. For instance, one of the groups awarded TANF money by Maine is Fair Haven Camps, a Christian summer camp group that now has an after-school program for middle school kids with arts and crafts and lessons in financial literacy.
Legally, government funds for programs like this aren't supposed to be spent on promoting religion. Dena Sher, the assistant legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Salon that these grants "do not adequately protect the religious freedom the people who are supposed to be served." Frequently, programs originated by religious groups do little to secularize themselves once they get government funding, she said.
"The students getting these services shouldn’t wonder whether they will be kicked out of the taxpayer-funded program because they don’t want to pray or listen to preaching," Sher added.
Still, the larger problem is that TANF is failing in its most basic mission, which is to help people out of poverty. This is a country where 1.5 million households — and more than 3 million children — are living on less than $2 a day, a problem that directly stems from states cutting people who need help from the welfare rolls. Only 23 percent of families living in poverty now receive TANF assistance, down from 68 percent in 1996. This refusal to help people in poverty only ends up compounding the problem. Sociological research shows that children who grow up in poverty are far likelier to be undereducated and poor in adulthood. After-school programs are nice, but helping kids graduate often depends more on making sure they have a safe, stable home — which means giving the assistance directly to their families.
Unfortunately, there's every reason to believe this problem will get worse in the coming years. Republican control of most state governments surely means there will be more efforts to push needy people off welfare by redirecting the money towards ancillary programs. President Trump has been making noises about "welfare reform," by which he means condemning more people to poverty instead of increasing assistance that can help them escape it. Trump just signed a bill slashing taxes for the richest Americans that will add $1.5 trillion to the national debt, creating the perfect excuse to strip already desperate people of the minimal help they now receive.