Many people Schidzig knew as a child and young adult — and others she would come to know as she grew older — were also on one form or another of public assistance. Food stamps, TANF, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid (called MaineCare here) are the largest state programs. (Disability payments, another major form of help, are handled federally by the Social Security Administration.)

She saw what grinding poverty did, and was determined to be able to provide for herself and her family. She made what experts say is the best possible move: she sought higher education, enrolling in community college.

Seeking education

The UNE-UMO study found that "higher educational levels are strongly correlated with less time spent on TANF and lower frequency of return to cash assistance." Recipients with less than a high-school diploma averaged 21 months on TANF, while the "relatively small number of college graduates" who received TANF stayed on the program for an average of just eight months.

Sixteen percent of the survey respondents applied for and enrolled in a state program called Parents as Scholars, in which TANF recipients can get help with child-care and transportation costs while enrolled in classes at accredited colleges and training programs. Hastedt says "it's not promoted as effectively as it should be" by state workers handling applications for aid.

Indeed, between 2005 and 2011, TANF participation has increased, reflecting growing need that is at least partially related to the ongoing recession. But during that same period, Parents as Scholars participation has dropped. "These are the times when people should be going back to school," Hastedt says. With high unemployment, they'd have trouble getting a job anyway, and can take advantage of assistance to learn new skills, thereby increasing their chances of finding work as the economy improves. "What a lost opportunity," Hastedt says.

Schidzig was in the PaS program; she specifically needed help with child care, because she had three more children in rapid succession between 2007 and 2009, and they needed looking after when she was in class.

Schidzig says she applied for additional aid immediately following each birth; she was unable to work for short periods because all three babies were born by cesarean section. She received aid for at least some of the period between October 2007 and February 2010, according to court documents.

From time to time she got into trouble with the law, accumulating several misdemeanor convictions from 1998, the year she turned 18, through February 2011. The Lewiston Sun Journal reported that she served a total of six days in jail and paid $900 in fines connected with the various small-time crimes, ranging from disorderly conduct to carrying a concealed weapon.

But she was able to live on her own in Lewiston, with the help of Section 8 housing supplements, when — according to state allegations — her boyfriend, the father of her three youngest children, moved in. (Schidzig says he stayed over from time to time but was away a lot, working elsewhere in the state.) Then real trouble began.

Courting disaster

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