Analysis of TANF and the positive role it plays for Maine families and the economy

By Ramona du Houx - January 26th, 2011 

Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine Women’s Lobby released the results of a comprehensive study of the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Work began on the research more than a year ago with a survey of more than 1,000 families receiving assistance from TANF, followed by focus groups. The goal was to better understand TANF’s impact on families and the Maine economy. The result is the most comprehensive and rigorous study of TANF families in Maine conducted since 1995.

“While we believe that the program can be improved, we all need to start with a common understanding of what TANF is, and what it isn’t. Otherwise, changes in the program could put struggling families further at risk while also damaging Maine’s economy,” said Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners.

The TANF program helps families with children with low incomes throughout the nation, including the State of Maine. As of November 2010, 14,775 Maine families from every county in the State, representing 25,891 children, received TANF assistance. Families seek help from TANF for three principal reasons: for some, it’s the inability to find stable and secure employment; for others family health problems limit a parent’s ability to work; and still others face family-related crises stemming from domestic violence, separation or divorce. In most instances, families receive TANF for only a short time.

“We urge lawmakers to fully understand the circumstances of these families before making decisions that will have consequences to children, families, and our economy,” said Sarah Standiford, Executive Director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “We’re here to talk about what TANF is really about. It’s about low-income Mainers—mostly women—struggling in a labor market with low wages and inflexible hours. It’s about Mainers struggling with the barriers presented by a work-limiting disability. And, it’s about women and children managing the impact of domestic abuse. We can only arrive at the appropriate solutions when they are based on facts—not fiction.”

The study, Families in Focus — Moving Beyond Anecdotes: Lessons for legislators from a 2010 survey of TANF recipients was conducted by Professors Sandra Butler, Ph.D. from the University of Maine and Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin, Ph.D. from the University of New England.

Professor McLaughlin, the principle researcher of the study stated, “What we learned from these findings is that it’s impossible to assess the TANF program without considering the economic and health factors that shape the lives of low-income Mainers—the low-wage labor market, illness, disability, and child care needs.Improving opportunity and economic security for low-income families and their children demands a productive and thoughtful conversation about the reasons that families must turn to TANF in the first place and what it takes to help them succeed.”

Among the 2010 survey respondents, the median length of time they had been on the program at the time that the survey was administered was only 18 months. Of all those responding to the 2010 survey, 42.2% of families applying for TANF did so because they “couldn’t find a job.” Among all respondents 35% indicated that they “can’t earn enough from work to support my family” as a reason for applying for TANF.

Pam Smith, a current TANF recipient stated, “I’m here today to speak for the 14,000 Maine families whose lives are sustained by TANF. In most instances, families receive TANF for only a short time, and for most, it does exactly what it is intended to do—provide temporary support to help people get back on their feet. As with others who find themselves on TANF, I’d much rather be supporting myself. I’m a hard worker. But, I also know that more training will give me a better chance at finding a job that provides me with the wages and hours that I need to support my family.” Smith continued, “I am very grateful to know that TANF is there for me and my boys. If it wasn’t for TANF, I don’t know where my boys and I would be today.”

The study can be accessed at www.mainewomen.org and www.mejp.org.