Rigorous and credible research and analysis should be the foundation for evaluating public policies. Unfortunately during this election season, it is increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction. The latest example of playing fast and loose with the numbers comes from a recently released report by the Maine Heritage Policy Center (MPHC) titled “Fix the System.”
MHPC paints only in broad strokes and relies on irresponsible generalizations to advance their cause. Case in point, MHPC never clarifies exactly which programs it is talking about when discussing the need to fix Maine’s “welfare system.” As a result, they extend their critique of one program in particular – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families – to the system as a whole.
The TANF program constitutes approximately 1% of the state’s budget and serves about 14,200 families. This is hardly the source of our budget woes nor could it possibly “trap” a large population as MHPC suggests. In fact, one of the report’s authors, Tarren Bragdon, helped pass the TANF legislation as a Republican in 1997, which has changed little since then.
Lumping spending on health care through the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, leads to the claim that “Maine spends $2.506 billion on welfare.” It ignores the key fact that much of this money comes from federal sources which actually helps Maine take care of its most vulnerable citizens and provides significant economic benefit to the state.
Suggesting that Maine is somehow out-of-step in its design of MaineCare is similarly misleading. 82% of MaineCare’s budget reimburses healthcare providers for services to children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. These are populations served in accordance with mostly federal, not state, guidelines. To suggest that Maine is “trapping” these people in a state of dependency is troubling to say the least.
Where Maine has exercised discretion in the implementation of MaineCare, it has been done with bipartisan support and with very specific outcomes in mind. Expanding eligibility to parents and childless adults has helped Maine achieve some of the highest rates of health insurance coverage in the country at a cost that is less than what it otherwise would have been. Extending drug benefits to seniors has allowed the state to reduce the cost of prescription drugs at significant savings. MHPC’s insistence on benchmarking Maine’s enrollment levels in MaineCare to other states obscures these facts and fails to acknowledge demographic differences between states as well.
Re-evaluating and strengthening Maine’s safety net to help individuals and families in a changing economy is an important task. Maximizing the return on our investment in these programs requires us to recognize their inherent complexities and differences rather than demonizing programs and people for political convenience.