AUGUSTA — Gov. LePage’s decision to begin enforcing work requirements on an estimated 12,000 Mainers who need help putting food on the table exposes glaring shortcomings in his record on jobs and employment.
As Maine struggles slowly back from the depths of the Great Recession, the state still lacks a comprehensive, effective economic growth strategy. We lack policies to encourage the creation of good, full-time jobs. We aren’t equipping workers with skills to secure those jobs. And we’re failing to invest in roads and other infrastructure, research and development, and financing to meet the needs of existing employers and attract new businesses to Maine.
When the U.S. Department of Labor releases Maine’s latest monthly jobs and employment report, the LePage administration cites every incremental drop in the unemployment rate as proof that the governor’s economic policies are working. The facts reveal a more troubling picture. Yes, our unemployment rate has declined, but on other important measures, Maine lags seriously behind much of the nation.
Maine has recovered only 58 percent of the jobs lost during the recession – we’re still 10,600 jobs short of pre-recession employment levels. The nation as a whole has recovered all of the jobs lost, and added 8 percent more, while New England has recovered all it lost, and added another 24 percent. If Maine’s job creation matched New England’s, we’d have 17,000 more jobs than we currently do.
Long-term unemployment remains a problem. Maine has twice as many long-term unemployed workers than before the recession began. Yes, we’ve made progress since the recession’s trough, but far too many Mainers who had jobs before the recession continue to struggle to find work more than six years after it ended.
Even when people find work, it may not be enough to support them and their families. Maine has the sixth highest percentage in the nation of workers who are employed part time but want full-time work. That’s 40,300 workers who want more work but can’t find it.
Monthly jobs reports also don’t consider wages and income. Median household income is still well below pre-recession levels and the national level, with no signs of growth. A person working full time, year-round for the minimum wage in Maine (currently $7.50 per hour) barely makes enough to exceed the poverty threshold for an individual. How does a family with one “employed” member working part time for minimum wage afford housing, food, fuel, clothes and shoes for the kids, and generally make ends meet?
These issues are compounded further in rural Maine, where unemployment levels remain significantly higher than in the rest of the state and job growth is virtually nonexistent.
If work were abundant, the governor’s plan to enforce work or volunteer requirements for low-income individuals seeking nutrition assistance might make sense. With over 90,000 Mainers still struggling to find work, it’s the wrong approach at the wrong time and may ultimately undermine, rather than enhance, the ability of low-income men and women to get good jobs.
The vast majority of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients nationally – 82 percent – are employed within a year of receiving benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive research group. SNAP actually encourages work by phasing out in a way that allows individuals to retain some level of benefit as their work hours and incomes increase. In other words, SNAP works.
It is also ironic that the governor’s plan would waive the work requirement for participants in the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program, which helps individuals gain credentials and skills that will enable them get a better-paying job. Enrollment in the program is currently closed and won’t open for another year, with perhaps 500 openings at best. Early in his administration, the governor proposed significant cuts in this successful program.
Increased funding for the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program and other initiatives that prepare current and future workers to land well-paying, full-time jobs would be much more effective than denying them nutrition assistance.
And since SNAP is federally funded, it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. Add a robust, affordable bond initiative to rebuild Maine’s crumbling roads and bridges, invest in research and development, and fund small-business loans, and we’d have the kind of economic policy Maine needs.
If Gov. LePage were truly serious about jobs, he’d stop blocking federal funds available to provide health care for 70,000 Mainers, add $500 million annually to our economy and support 4,400 jobs. That makes more sense than drawing a line in the sand for folks struggling to find a job in a down economy.
— Special to the Press Herald