Maine Governor Paul LePage, never one to shy away from controversy, is stirring the pot again. The card carrying member of the anti-establishment Tea Party and early endorser of Donald Trump thumbed his nose at the federal government Thursday by diverting millions of dollars of welfare grant money into state programs he deems more socially acceptable.
According to a report by the Bangor Daily News, a local Maine newspaper, $1.7 million in federal funds meant to provide cash assistance to low income families will instead be spent by the state government on after school programs run by a bevy of non-profit organizations.
The funds have been made available to states by the federal government through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF grant. This grant was designed with as few regulations as possible so that families could decide where the money would be best spent. Some months it could be used for rent, other months for heating bills or warm clothes for their children.
But that low regulatory thresholds also allows states a lot of leeway over how to best distribute the money to those benefit those needy families. States have taken advantage of the loose restrictions to cover a wide a variety of costs and programs, as long as one of the “four purposes of TANF are met.”
Oklahoma, for example, used TANF money to fund marriage classes for low income families, justifying the spending by arguing that married, two parent families are less likely to live in poverty. Michigan, on the other hand, used some of their TANF grant to fund college scholarships for Michiganders attending expensive in-state private schools. Maine, however, made a much more tangential connection.
“There is a clear statistical relationship between staying in school and lower teen pregnancy rates,” Maine’s request for proposals states. The proposal goes on to argue that “special initiatives to keep teens in school are reasonably related to the third purpose of TANF — to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies.”
While diverting funds from the pockets of the families who desperately need them to non-profit organizations might not be illegal, or even unethical, it fails to meet the spirit of the program and raises serious questions about overall impact.
Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan social work professor, told the Bangor Daily News that, “After-school programs don’t pay the rent, and they don’t keep kids in underwear, they don’t keep the parents in underwear,”
Governor Lepage has been planning this massive heist of federal dollars for some time. According to the Bangor Daily News report, “since 2012, the number of low-income families with children in Maine who receive cash assistance has fallen by two-thirds, causing the state to amass a pot of millions in unspent federal TANF funds. The LePage administration has touted using some of that money on after-school programs as a benefit of eliminating the cash benefits.”
One of the fundamental principles of the Tea Party is – or at least, is supposed to be – that people know how best to care for their family, and the government should stay out of the way whenever possible. Another principle is that states don’t need any interference from Washington.
By hijacking money from Washington meant for needy Maine families to pay for pet state projects, Governor LePage is blatantly violating both of those principles with gusto.