Every dollar the state spends is coming under serious scrutiny.

That’s inevitable when Maine’s state government is under intense pressure to make its budget conform to a revenue stream severely impacted by an economic downturn.

Along with education, the state spends a lot of its own money — and many more millions from federal sources — to assist Mainers who have lost their jobs, lack education, require treatment of physical and mental illnesses, and face incomes that aren’t sufficient for their families’ needs.

Now, due to a think tank’s report based on data from the U.S. Census and other federal and state sources, social service spending is taking its turn under the political microscope.

The report, called “Fix the System: Freeing Maine Families from Welfare Dependency,” from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based conservative public policy group, analyzes the size and purpose of what the MHPC calls “welfare” spending.

The report has become the subject of significant public debate. It is absolutely vital that all parties realize that Maine people do not seek aid casually or frivolously, and they should not be criticized or demeaned for doing so.

Nor should those active in the debate make attacks on each other. Mainers expect and deserve a higher level of discussion on public issues than that.

REPORT HAS CRITICS

Still, it is understandable that some who define their role as defending the interests of Mainers impacted by need have responded to the report critically. Among other things, they object to calling unemployment insurance and MaineCare (the name for the state’s Medicaid-supported health insurance for families and the poor) as “welfare,” preferring to use “social safety net.”

Also part of the MHPC’s analysis are Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), food aid and general assistance, a state-paid, community-run program that gives limited amounts of cash to the needy. Social Security and Medicare, however, are not included.

According to MHPC’s report, enrollment in state and federal programs, which used to climb in recessions and decline in recoveries, has risen throughout the eight years of the Baldacci administration, while Maine’s poverty level has stayed almost flat.

Poverty is running just over 12 percent, but 29 percent of Mainers are enrolled in some form of assistance program, a percentage that is 70 percent higher now than it was in 2003.

The administration objects to that characterization, saying that it fails to note that state spending has only risen 8.1 percent under Gov. Baldacci, while federal funding for Maine programs has gone up 28 percent.

Either way, the MHPC’s contention is not that the state spends too much money, but that the spending is directed at the wrong purpose.

In the think tank’s view, the state is too focused, intentionally or not, on keeping people dependent on government aid. Therefore, it does not work to get clients to the point that they can become independent and meet their own needs with their own incomes.

Critics, including the Maine Center for Economic Policy, an Augusta-based progressive policy group, say the report is flawed in several ways: It combines unrelated programs with different eligibility standards; it does not differentiate federal funding from state support; it ignores the economic context of swelling participation in certain programs; and it emphasizes the impact of small programs while downplaying larger, more costly ones.

MHPC replies that federal and state funds both come from taxpayers’ wallets, and the state’s liberal eligibility standards (compared to most other states) lead Maine to use funds inefficiently, aiding less needy people at the expense of ones who are worse off.

In addition, the think tank says, Maine ranks second nationally in per capita spending on TANF, Medicaid and food stamps and other food aid.

Not only that, it is the only state in the top 10 nationally in all three categories — a sign it is spending aid money less efficiently than most other states.

The MHPC says that the state measures the success of a program by how many people participate, and has structured its incentives to maximize participation by as many people as possible. That’s misguided, it says.

TRACK TOWARD JOBS

Instead, it would have the state design programs to put aid recipients, where at all possible, on a track toward financial independence, a process that would emphasize educational support and job training. It says, at least for the foreseeable future, that effort would probably cost at least as much as the current system and may require hiring a significant number of new state workers to oversee it.

At the same time, the group says, there’s no point in training people for jobs that don’t exist, so it asks the new governor to concentrate on policies that would boost business attraction and expansion. That would offer the best chance to lift people out of dependence on government aid, in its view.

Overall, the MHPC’s points make sense, but they still requires buy-in by the new governor. So, whether you call them “welfare” or “the safety net,” voters deserve to know what all the candidates think about the scope and goals of Maine’s social programs.