ASPIRE is a program in desperate need of accountability

I let out a sardonic chuckle when I read that no one turned out at a public hearing about the LePage administration’s proposed rule changes for the ASPIRE program. It started out as a sardonic laugh, but it ended as a sad sigh.

For those not in the social service biz, the ASPIRE program supports adults receiving TANF benefits to move toward financial independence through training, education, and job-seeking. The bulk of TANF recipients are mothers and young children, and ASPIRE is a means to assist these parents in setting and achieving work-related goals.

I’ve skimmed the proposed rule changes, and my immediate thought was one of deep empathy for any of the advocates out there dealing with these matters.

I’m guessing it’s hard for advocates to know where to start or how comprehensive to be. I’m assuming involved parties are submitting their concerns about the proposed changes in written form, rather than verbally testifying, due to length. I know if I had to prepare documentation of my concerns, I’d probably need at least 50 pages.

Some of the proposed changes seem so cold, I needed to put on an extra sweater just to read them; but I might be reading them incorrectly … I hope I am reading them incorrectly.

Like on page 25 (previously hyperlinked or click here), in the section on the goals and the objectives of the program.  Objective #4 reads: To provide necessary support services so that TANF recipients can participate in ASPIRE-TANF and become employed without a net loss of cash income.

The proposed change strikes the part about “without a net loss of cash income.” If you take that phrase out of the objective, the remainder reads like it’s okay for the program to find the recipient a job that leaves that family worse off than it was while needing welfare in the first place. That’s a pretty low bar.

Why have ASPIRE at all if it’s okay for this taxpayer funded program to leave clients worse off than they were when they started the program? Sounds like an unhealthy level of accountability for the recipient and an unhealthy lack of accountability for the program.

Later on page 29, the proposed changes strike an orientation requirement that notifies recipients about “ASPIRE-TANF services, participants rights and responsibilities, and other pertinent information.” Combine that change with the idea that any job will do, and it sounds to me like the program will be free to pigeon-hole recipients into any given employment scenario, regardless of the fit or longterm financial sustainability or the recipient’s right to pursue other avenues.

Again, heavy on the client accountability, light on the program’s.

Accountability. It’s becoming one of those meaningless words that everybody uses when it’s convenient for a given purpose.  I mean, we need to hold TANF recipients accountable by forcing them to take jobs that leave them worse off than they already are because if we don’t, we’d have to hold professionals accountable for failing to help them achieve more.

Or we’d at least have to take into consideration the various social and economic factors contributing to recipients’ circumstances, but that’s too complicated. It’s far easier to hold the least educated and least in economic control accountable all by themselves. And who cares if recipients financial stories don’t work out anyway?

It’s not like the adult recipients hold our futures in their hands as they rear and support their young children.

A lack of program accountability is also at the heart of the move to privatize the ASPIRE program, which is happening at the same time these program rule changes are being proposed. Maine DHHS is currently working through the details for a $62.5 million contract with New York-based Fedcap to administer Maine’s ASPIRE program.

The administration has argued the move is necessary due to the fact that “the current program is faulty because it fails to achieve federal targets for work participation rates.” Rather than hold itself accountable and improve the program, which advocates argue is totally feasible, the administration is choosing to pass the buck.

So let’s pause for a second and check the accountability score. On the recipients side, everything I’ve written so far suggests they can’t be held accountable enough. On the program side, we have proposed changes to make an already failing-in-accountability program less accountable.

You’d think, given the administration’s struggle to hold itself accountable for its administration of the ASPIRE program, Fedcap’s proposal would be rich with independent and objective accountability measures.

You might be wrong.

In a category called “Program Management and Evaluation” on page 51 of Fedcap’s proposal, is the following paragraph:

Fedcap will use a variety of methods to monitor the effectiveness of the program, allocate resources properly, and make sure it understands the dynamics of the program operation so that improvements can be made as needed. Some of the functions will be handled internally and others by its quality assurance and evaluation vendor, Hornby Zeller and Associates.

Back to the accountability scorecard — under the proposed Fedcap program, recipients still cannot be held accountable enough. On the program side, an already failing-in-accountability program with soon-to-be newly loosened accountability rules is about to be handed to a private contractor who will be holding itself accountable for program management and evaluation.

It’s enough to knock the sardonic chuckle right out of me. All that’s left is another sad sigh.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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