AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Democrats in Augusta, led by Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, are pushing for a big increase in spending to fight poverty. But they're not likely to get much help from the LePage Administration.
Speaker Gideon announced on Monday her plan to use $150 million she said came from the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program but is sitting unused in the Department of Health and Human Services.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said Gideon's assertion isn't correct, and that the money is being used for programs to help children and families. Gideon said Maine's rate of "deep poverty" is increasing, with 30,000 children living in households making under $10,000 per year. She said that kind of extreme poverty causes hunger and other problems for the developing children.
"Places like Aroostook County where 21.8 percent of children live in poverty. Or Piscataquis county where 30 percent live in poverty," Gideon said. "By kindergarten, food insecure children are often cognitively, emotionally and physically behind their peers and the poverty that causes this hunger has lifetime effects."
Gideon's bill would use those federal dollars to provide what she calls a cost of living increase for Mainers on the TANF program, along with housing and heating vouchers and other supports. She said it would also expand job training, education and other programs for those parents.
Commissioner Mayhew, however, said the speaker's bill is the wrong way to go. Mayhew said her department is fighting poverty, but that putting more money into benefits won't fix the problems.
"What we know," Mayhew said, "is there were many more children living in poverty when TANF caseloads were much larger. We are all committed to addressing poverty — the difference is we don't believe the answer is growing government and trapping more people."
The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates the number of Maine kids in extreme poverty increased from 14,000 in 2000 to 19,000 in 2015.
That's a steeper rise than the nation as a whole.
The legislature's Health and Human Services Committee heard arguments on both sides of the issue at a hearing Monday and will begin debating it in the coming weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this story