Debate over General Assistance eligibility politically motivated and counterproductive

Robert W. Glover, University of Maine 

On Monday, Governor Paul LePage sent a memo to every Maine municipality announcing that if they were to provide General Assistance funds without checking immigration status, they would cease to receive Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) funding for any General Assistance funds.

If LePage follows through with this threat, it will have severe impacts not only on migrants, but on low-income individuals throughout the state. In addition, this will further exacerbate tensions between the Governor and municipalities reeling from recent cuts to revenue-sharing (many of whom have just enacted painful property tax increases, cut municipal spending, or both in order to cover these cuts).

General Assistance is a form of emergency assistance provided by cities and towns to extremely low-income individuals in a situation of crisis. General assistance is often the most accessible form of aid, resulting in what is usually a small, one-time payment with an eligibility decision granted within 24 hours. For some families and individuals, this funding can mean the bridge that helps them avoid homelessness or destitution, as they recover from a sudden crisis.

In recent months, Governor LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew’s statements on this issue have evolved several times. When this rule change was first proposed late last year, the ban included asylum seekers (those seeking legal asylum in the United States in order to escape persecution or violence). In May, after pushback from Attorney General Janet Mills and a variety of advocacy groups, Mayhew announced that she had amended the rule to only bar General Assistance to undocumented immigrants. The Attorney General has stated that the proposed rule change runs afoul of both the Maine and US Constitution, circumvents the public review process necessary for a rule change of this magnitude, likely requires approval in the Maine Legislature, and would constitute an unfunded mandate on municipalities currently not required (and not properly trained) to investigate citizenship status.

Large municipalities such as Bangor, Portland, and South Portland have already announced that they will not follow the rule until the disagreement between the Attorney General and DHHS is resolved. The Maine Municipal Association has taken a similar approach with Executive Director Chris Lockwood noting that,“…with the DHHS notification, municipalities are receiving two fundamentally competing directives or opinions from State Government and it is impossible for municipal administrators to comply simultaneously with both.”

This back-and-forth has led LePage to “step up” his brinksmanship, as he is now saying that municipalities that do not comply will have all state General Assistance funding (up to 90% of total funding for cities such as Bangor and Portland) cut. This is problematic leadership and, more importantly, bad policy for a variety of reasons:

1) The potential impacts of LePage’s proposed threat are too high.

General assistance serves as a vital community-level safety net for individuals in crisis. Regardless of what one thinks on the immigration issue, the Governor is being callous and irresponsible here. He is clearly frustrated that the Attorney General and several Maine municipalities are not bending to his will, but he is literally risking putting Maine families out on the streets in order to achieve a political victory.

2) The cost savings are unclear.

Thus far, the only figures we have seen or heard regarding potential costs of undocumented individuals receiving General Assistance are dubious at best. Maine DHHS official Sam Adolphson estimated earlier this month that roughly 1000 undocumented individuals receive benefits and the rules change would save the state roughly $1 million dollars annually. How can we make such claims when municipal officials are not currently verifying citizenship status? How is the administration defining those who are here legally and those who are not? Those questions have not been adequately answered. Furthermore, any “savings” we gain will rapidly dissipate if we are suddenly dealing with families and individuals put into shelters or cast out on the streets.

3) It is notoriously hard to determine who is here legally and who is not.

This is particularly the case with asylum seekers, and some of Maine’s largest migrant communities are comprised of asylum seekers, those who come to the United States fleeing persecution or violence. Those fleeing such harrowing situations may arrive with few to no possessions, and little to prove their identity and story of origin. Their application for asylum must be investigated and this can take time. During the time in which their case is being investigated, these individuals are not allowed to work and legally, they are in limbo. By definition, their lawful residency status in the United States is unclear. Imagine being a municipal official who suddenly must determine the eligibility status of individuals such as this and do so with no additional training. Furthermore, these decisions must be made within 24 hours. The Governor and DHHS have presented municipalities with an impossible (and unfunded) challenge.

4) The Governor’s interpretation of federal eligibility law is questionable.

Lastly, in his letter to municipalities, the Governor cites the 1996 changes to welfare eligibility that sharply restricted access on the benefits on the basis of legal residency status. However, there are exceptions to residency status qualifications for a variety of different federal and state benefits. These include emergency programs addressing homelessness and the health and safety of community residents. The limited General Assistance funds to protect individuals from ending up on the streets could easily be interpreted to fall within these criteria. Thus, even the federal guidelines, with which the Governor is so anxious to comply, create restrictions where benefits cannot be withheld on the basis of legal residency status.

On this basis, municipal officials in cities that have resisted the General Assistance rules change ought to be commended. There are serious concerns as to how one could implement such new rules effectively, or whether such rule changes are legal, constitutional, or desirable. At the very least, such concerns should be vetted by the Maine State Legislature, rather than swiftly thrust upon municipalities accompanied by threats and misinformation.

 

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