By restricting benefits to parents with addiction, Maine only hurts children

I am new to political blogging, and I am already sick of the topic of welfare reform. But then I read the news, and next thing I know hungry children are haunting my thoughts again.

Hungry children and hypocrisy. And hypocrisy exacerbating the problem of childhood hunger in Maine. There are hard truths Mainers need to understand as they expect policy makers to draft reform.

I think most of us can agree on a few global ideas: The welfare system is broken; hypocrisy in problem solving is bad; and children going hungry is unacceptable. The devil is in the details, though, and there’s plenty of devil in LD 1407. This bill aims to expand the drug screening requirement for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Writing in support of the legislation, LePage spokesperson Adrienne Bennett said “every dollar wasted on drugs is one less dollar that goes to a needy child.” She’s right, and she’s wrong. I have supported people struggling with opiate addiction. I know that some, by no means all, addicts in the darkest stages of their disease are willing to compromise the needs of their children to acquire drugs.

It is hypocritical, though, to suggest penalizing addicted parents will improve the status of needy children. Keep in mind TANF is a program for children and their parents. Denying addicted parents benefits in no way ensures their needy children get help. Denying benefits is actually denying the existence of their needy children as is evidenced by the impact of a law implemented passed in 2011.

That law mandated drug screening and urinalysis for recipients with prior drug convictions. DHHS Office of Family Independence Director Beth Hamme reported that the result was four recipients “being rejected from the TANF program because they did not show up for the written screening or urinalysis.”

But if TANF is for “children and their parents,” how can the children be rejected for their parents’ behavior? And who is following up on the status of the children in those four families? And on the level of addiction of the parents in those four families?

LePage’s Chief Health policy advisor Holly Lusk testified that expanding on the 2011 law with LD1407 will “protect our vulnerable children by getting parents to seek treatment that will assist them in overcoming addiction.” If addicted parents are summarily rejected when they fail to show up, how exactly will that happen?

In my experience, the one week you know the needs of the children in these families are met is the week that TANF and food stamps benefits are credited to their EBT card. It’s yucky to think about but true in a small number of families receiving these benefits. Taking away the TANF benefit makes that one good week worse for the kids.

SNAP benefits are rarely sufficient to cover the actual cost of feeding the family to whom they are allotted, just like most housing subsidies do not cover the entire cost of rent. Even in the most drug-addled households, some amount of TANF benefits usually goes to food and housing costs.

Addressing the problem of addicted parents struggling with their parenting choices and their finances is an urgent problem facing policymakers. It won’t be easy to solve, and like so many challenges facing our state, it will require a comprehensive approach.

No one wants taxpayer dollars going to support drug habits. The problem is no one should want money taken away from hungry, needy children either.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.