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What Happens to Poor Families When They Hit Welfare Time Limits?

“Welfare” as it now exists in the United States aims to provide a short-term safety net for very needy families with children and prepare adults to get jobs. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law passed by Congress in 1996 said that cash assistance should be limited to no more than five years (sixty months) over a lifetime. But states were allowed some flexibility to extend  this limit for up to one-fifth of their welfare recipients who face unusual problems. 
Until last year, the state of Maine took advantage of this flexibility to provide extended help to less than 15% of its caseload. Some people could continue to get benefits if they complied with all welfare rules, including the rule about seeking or preparing for employment. But in 2011, the Maine legislature voted to make the sixty-month limit virtually absolute. Exceptions would be granted only if people were awarded a special hardship extension due to coping with disability, domestic violence, or the need to care for a disabled family member. 
When the new law took effect in 2012, more than 2,000 Maine families were affected. About 44% requested hardship extensions, but only a quarter of all people scheduled for termination got the exception. Since January 1, 2012, more than 1,500 Maine families, including 2,700 children have lost cash benefits. Who are these families and what are their circumstances? To answer this question and consider whether welfare has adequate protections for the most vulnerable, I surveyed a sample of 54 Maine families whose benefits were stopped and did some additional indepth personal interviews to probe people’s experiences more deeply. 
What We Know about Families Who Need Long-Term Welfare Assistance
A 2010 study found that most families receiving welfare in Maine do so for a short time, typically about 18 months. People needing longer-term help usually had less than a high school education and were coping with personal ill-health or family disabilities. 
Findings from other states tell the same story. Research studies consistently show that a small subset of recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families require specialized assistance and ongoing support to be able to provide for their families, because they are grappling with one or more severe difficulties such as physical or mental health problems, caring for a disabled child, the aftermath of domestic violence, or educational deficits and learning disabilities.
Sandra Butler is Professor of Social Work and Master of Social Work Coordinator at School of Social Work, University of Maine. She is also a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together many of America's leading scholars to address pressing public challenges.