PUBLIC ASSISTANCE

September 16, 2010

Welfare frustration prompts suggestions for improvement

Independent Eliot Cutler offers a nine-point plan, including proposals that other candidates support.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - Mainers are understandably angry and frustrated with public assistance and welfare, Eliot Cutler said Wednesday while proposing a plan to improve the system.

The anger is "understandable because Maine families all over the state are struggling; Maine businesses are struggling just to get by," the independent gubernatorial candidate said during a press conference at the State House.

"We know that somewhere between one in four or one in three of all people in the state of Maine are on public assistance."

Part of the problem is a lack of jobs, he said.

But the state allowed welfare programs to grow even before the recession hit, he said.

To address the problem, Cutler proposed nine steps to reform the welfare system, "to do better with less cost."

Cutler, an attorney from Cape Elizabeth who worked for Sen. Edmund Muskie and in the Carter administration, is among five people who will be on the Nov. 2 ballot in the race for governor.

His plan includes:

Making sure there are enough investigators to prevent fraud and abuse.

Imposing "more effective job search and employment activity requirements" on applicants.

Verifying residency to make sure that people who have homes in other states don't get Maine benefits.

Gradually reducing benefits as income increases so "people can go back to work without moving backwards financially."

Also, he wants to enforce a five-year limit on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, require the Department of Health and Human Services to meet clear standards, and mandate that the department issue an annual report to taxpayers.

Even before the fall election season, Republican candidate Paul LePage began talking about the need to reform welfare, using his own life story of poverty and success as an example that people can get out of the system.

On Monday, he put forward his five-point plan for welfare as part of an overall plan for the state. LePage wants to require the DHHS to try to help people get jobs before it issues benefits, put in a tiered system to reduce benefits as income increases, and institute a five-year limit on temporary assistance.

On Wednesday, independent Shawn Moody said he wants to end the "smorgasbord of welfare benefits," require those who are able to do public service or comparable work if they get benefits, and impose harsher sanctions on people who cheat the system.

"We need to change the mindset in Augusta," Moody said in a prepared statement. "When people go to the state for help, they are given instructions on how to qualify for all kinds of benefits they may not even need, a real all-you-can-eat smorgasbord."

In previous forums, Democrat Libby Mitchell has said she believes the best way to help people on welfare is to improve the economy and provide better educational opportunities.

"The best way to get people from welfare to work is to give them the skills to thrive in today's economy," said her spokesman, David Loughran.

While fielding questions from reporters, Cutler said there's little evidence that people move to Maine to take advantage of welfare benefits. If elected, he said, he would appoint a demonstrated leader to head the department.

"There are people who have demonstrated success in other kinds of organizations, in complex organizations who are also decent, compassionate, generous people," he said. "That's the kind of person who needs to lead this agency."

Cutler, who got 11 percent support in the most recent poll on the race for governor -- trailing LePage and Mitchell -- said upcoming televised debates will help voters make up their minds.

"I think as time goes forward, over the course of the next few weeks, the people of Maine are going to be paying more and more attention," he said. "I don't have any doubt in my mind that we're going to win."

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com

 

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