Another example is the LePage proposal to terminate benefits after five years of receiving them, with no extensions for any reason, and no exemptions that could pause the clock — not even medical emergencies or intensive job-training classes. Get aid for five years, and on the first day after that, benefits drop to zero. The primary underlying assumption is that a person will be so afraid of benefits stopping entirely that they will take great pains to leave the system. The secondary underlying assumption is that people will be energized by that fear, motivated to get work — and not terrified into inaction, and ultimately dropping off the welfare rolls into even deeper poverty.

MEJP's Hastedt says welfare recipients do fear losing their benefits, but struggle with what to do in a low-wage, low-employment economy where having a job does not mean (and is often staggeringly far from) being able to afford child care, reliable transportation, and health care.

It turns out that while those who accuse welfare recipients of laziness might shudder to hear it, most of those they criticize are actually working very hard to scrape together enough money to house and feed and clothe themselves and their families.

Early struggles

Again we can turn to Schidzig's case for illumination. In many ways, she was a typical Maine welfare recipient. Now 31, she is the first to admit her life has had problems. In an interview at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, she describes herself as the child of a teenage mother, whose youth was supported at least in part by public assistance.

That is part of what many people refer to when they talk of a "cycle" of poverty, but it's actually less reflective of reality than even advocates for the needy expect. A 1995 study found that 64 percent of Mainers on welfare had not grown up in families receiving benefits; 11 percent said their families had gotten aid "most of the time;" 15 percent had received help "some of the time" (as little as once); and 10 percent didn't know whether their families had gotten welfare.

While it's hard to rely on 16-year-old data about a welfare system that differs significantly from today's, the study hasn't been replicated. And the population of welfare recipients has shifted heavily toward people who have some type of disability, which would tend to suggest further departure from successive generational dependency.

A mother at 17, Schidzig finished high school but didn't go on to college; her first child's father was of little help, so Schidzig stayed with her mother. "I was a kid, raising a kid, living with a kid," she recalls. With few qualifications, she worked low-wage jobs, including at a Burger King restaurant in Lewiston.

Single motherhood with little to no support from the father, and low-wage jobs, are common threads throughout Maine's welfare system, according to a January 2011 report conducted by the University of New England and the University of Maine at Orono. Commissioned by MEJP and the Maine Women's Lobby, another nonprofit groups working to promote economic security for Maine families, the study found that nearly 92.4 percent of recipients of TANF, which provides cash assistance to needy families, are women with young children. In addition, just 12 percent of them received child support that was due. Nevertheless, they are used to working outside the home: 97 percent of recipients have work experience (mostly in the sales or service sectors, which are typically low-paying jobs).

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