PORTLAND – When times are tough, Maine people have shown enormous capacity to look out for each other and find solutions; the fabric of Maine communities is strong.

Together, we now face one of the greatest economic challenges since the Great Depression. Across the country families are struggling and often desperate: Unemployment rates are high, poverty rates are increasing, hunger and homelessness are up. Maine is no exception: it is an extraordinarily hard time for many Maine families.

For more than 15 years I have conducted research on a number of Maine’s safety-net programs. Policy research requires both integrity and openness in evaluating and reporting. Unfortunately, the recently released Maine Heritage Policy Center report, “Fixing the System,” does not bring clarity or an accurate understanding of the circumstances confronting this state and its citizens.

It is, at best, a reckless and disrespectful portrayal of the struggles Mainers encounter in a hard economic time.

When policy analysts evaluate programs designed to provide a helping hand and access to good jobs, they have a responsibility to do so on the basis of credible research and analysis.

While such an approach is always important, it is particularly essential now, in these tough economic times.

Maine’s safety-net programs are helping put food on the table and heat peoples’ homes as well as helping Mainers get and hold onto good-paying jobs. Health programs provide vital medical assistance and drugs to elders and people with disabilities. These longstanding programs reflect our shared values of independence, hard work and community.

Broad claims deserve scrutiny. Conflating programs and ignoring key facts, as the report does, cause more confusion than enlightenment. Let’s take a closer look at the report’s most obvious flaws.

It uses terms to mislead rather than to inform. The report is ostensibly about “welfare.” But what programs are we really talking about? MHPC talks in only the broadest terms, mixing up state with federal programs that serve different populations under different eligibility guidelines.

MaineCare comprises the bulk of safety-net spending in Maine, reimbursing medical providers for services primarily to children, the elderly, and disabled: Three-quarters of MaineCare’s funding comes from federal sources.

It is deceptive to lump these amounts with those spent on “food stamps,” which come entirely from federal assistance, and with amounts spent on general assistance programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which accounts for just over 1 percent of Maine’s general fund budget.

It plays fast and loose with the numbers. Again the authors are quick to criticize Maine’s spending and make no distinction between state and federal spending.

Ignoring this allows them to claim that “Maine spent $2.506 billion on its welfare system in 2008 alone — more than it spent on K-12 public education.” In fact, the total state expenditures on health care and all Department of Health and Human Services programs is $680 million — considerably less than the $870 million spent on K-12.

It ignores context and eliminates key facts. While the authors assert that “welfare” enrollment grew during the Baldacci administration, the few changes in Maine’s enrollment levels and program criteria mostly occurred by either federal mandate or as a result of the economic downturn.

In fact, the TANF program has remained the same as it was since study author Tarren Bragdon voted for it in 1997 as a Republican legislator, save for changes required by Congress in 2006. And contrary to the author’s assertions, more than half of all TANF recipients are working.

Similarly, as a result of a bipartisan effort to reduce the number of people without health insurance, Medicaid enrollment increased from 326,942 in 2003 to 370,648 in 2010. This is well below the 70 percent increase claimed by the MHPC. What’s more, because of federal guidelines, Maine’s ability to reduce enrollments (and presumably spending) in these program areas is limited. A responsible analysis would address this fact.

We can all agree that Maine’s safety-net programs need to be re-evaluated and strengthened. We can improve their effectiveness so that they can better help families who have hit hard times and give people the tools they need to succeed in a changing economy.

I’m proud to have contributed to past program revisions with my own research — reports which meet rigorous research standards.

Unfortunately, the center’s report does not meet those standards, and ends up doing considerable harm to a comprehensive understanding of essential programs at a time of severe economic uncertainty.