Federal rules also need to change, to allow welfare recipients to continue to qualify for benefits while enrolled in degree-granting programs. One reason state officials may not be promoting the Parents as Scholars program, despite how well it works, is that federal rules don't consider post-secondary education that lasts beyond 12 months as meeting recipients' required work participation while getting benefits.
Looked at closely, even conservatives support this change in policy. The 2010 MHPC report recommends more aggressively enforcing job-training requirements on welfare recipients. Such a change could include something like Schidzig's suggestion that people be required to get job training or go back to school. (The MHPC's specific recommendation focuses specifically on job training; it doesn't mention degree programs, but the data on reduced welfare dependence for degree holders is strong.)
Another MHPC proposal, however, differs from Schidzig in a key way, regarding "diversion" programs designed to help people avoid having to enroll in welfare. Schidzig puts it this way: "If a mother can't get a bed . . . help her get a bed." Maine has a program like this, called Alternative Aid, which is intended to give a one-time cash injection to a family so that the providers can keep working and not have to enroll in welfare programs. For example, if a car breaks down and needs an expensive repair before its driver can get to work, Alternative Aid can help cover the cost of the fix.
MHPC would add job-search requirements and other eligibility restrictions as conditions of receiving Alternative Aid, turning it into something that looks more like a traditional welfare program than a supplemental support for a parent who is already working. But that runs counter even to MHPC's description of its proposal as a "diversion" keeping people off welfare.
Finding 'a path out of poverty'
Another thing that needs to change is the political rhetoric, which at present tends to demonize the poor, turning people who need help from their fellow Mainers into some sort of leeching aliens selfishly hoarding cash. (Never mind that when averaging $100 per month per person, the benefits could hardly help anyone get rich.)
Now what happens? Schidzig is slated to be released from prison on June 1, 2012, and her two years of probation will begin. During that time, she will be expected to pay back the $18,000 restitution. She will likely be unable to find work — a felony conviction involving financial fraud isn't exactly attractive to employers, who are already seeing as many as 20 applicants per job opening — when there are jobs that are open. "I don't think I could even get a job at Burger King," she says with typical directness. (She knows what it takes to get a BK job; she's worked at one in the past.)
Which means she'll be back seeking help from the state. If she is able to get welfare benefits — people convicted of welfare fraud usually, and rightly, find it hard to get approved again — she likely won't qualify for help for herself, but only for her kids.
Therefore, her benefits will be lower than they were in the past, and she'll have little choice but to dip into that money to pay her probation officer to cover the cost of supervising her ($10 monthly), as well as all that restitution.
She's looking at a very similar picture to people who are on welfare. Hastedt describes it as difficulty "seeing a path out of poverty." What it looks like to Schidzig, and to other Maine welfare recipients — especially if LePage gets his way in next year's legislative session — is staring off a cliff.
Jeff Inglis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.