Over the past three years, more than half of Maine families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (what people normally think of as welfare) have been cut from the program. Fewer than 6,000 Maine families still receive assistance. Tens of thousands more Mainers have been cut from food stamps and health care programs.

These drastic and largely indiscriminate cuts to public assistance and public health programs have predominantly affected poor women (many of them single mothers) and their children. As a result, extreme child poverty in Maine has increased by 50 percent, and child hunger has skyrocketed. One in four Maine children now don’t have consistent access to food.

According to a detailed study by Sandra Butler, a professor at the University of Maine, more former TANF recipients have become homeless than have been able to find jobs in Maine’s slowly recovering economy. Maine’s food banks and shelters have been pushed to the breaking point, and things are about to get worse as we head into the coldest months of the year.

“Well, at least we’re saving some money,” you might say to yourself (if you’re a particularly cold-hearted person), but you’d be wrong.

Even if we set aside all the long-term societal costs and focus only on the short term, we’ve put ourselves deep in the hole.

The rejection of federal health care funding alone – a decision championed by Gov. LePage, and ratified last year by just a single vote in the Republican-controlled Senate – prevented $350 million more a year from entering Maine’s economy. The funds would have helped create thousands of new jobs while saving lives and preventing suffering.

Instead, hospitals and clinics across the state are facing millions of dollars in bad debt trying to treat the newly uninsured.

“Well, at least we’re preventing some people from ripping off the system,” you might say if you’re looking for some thin silver lining to this whole debacle. But even there the results are disappointing to the point of being laughable.

From 2011 to 2013, the years for which data is readily available, LePage spent $700,000 a year on eight additional full-time fraud inspectors. Despite Republicans’ claims that recipient fraud is widespread, only a few dozen cases were ever referred for prosecution. Of those, an even smaller number were successfully tried, and just $488,303 was ordered to be repaid over the entire period. It’s not clear how much money was actually recouped, but it was clearly nowhere near enough to even pay the salaries of the new inspectors.

More taxpayer money than this was lost in payments to conservative consultant (and LePage ally) Gary Alexander for his report suggesting that Maine deny more public assistance (which turned out to be not just plagiarized but also wildly inaccurate in its assumptions and projections).

You’d think that this track record would give us all some pause, but LePage and his allies are charging full speed ahead.

New proposals range from the picayune, like banning the purchase of iced tea with food stamps, to the insanely counterproductive, like eliminating the Parents as Scholars program, which has been instrumental in helping Mainers receiving public assistance earn college degrees and find decent jobs.

So how did we get so far off track? In large part, it’s because many conservative politicians have a vested interest in making the problems we face around public assistance far worse. They hype anecdotal and infrequent fraud and demonize poor people because it’s politically effective.

If they were really focused on lifting low-income Mainers out of poverty, they would vote to raise the minimum wage. If they were really focused on preventing fraud and malfeasance, they wouldn’t have voted to allow the corporate scam artists that raided the New Markets tax credit program to walk away with tens of millions of dollars in public funds.

Instead, they tell us a story, one that’s compelling because it gives us an excuse not to worry about the suffering that exists around us. If poverty is a personal failure rather than a community concern, then we can all feel a bit better about ourselves.

But their story isn’t true. The numbers don’t add up, and the hungry kids are far too real.

It’s time to stop telling tall tales and start focusing on what really works to improve the lives of all Mainers. It’s absolutely possible to find the right balance between our Maine values of promoting independence and coming together to help each other when we need it. The first step is acknowledging that the blunt and reckless approach has failed.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping