October 17, 2010

Welfare: Well-meaning, well-funded, well-done?

Voter anxiety centers on public aid, Blaine House hopefuls find.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Wherever the candidates for governor go in Maine, they say, one question is likely to follow them.

click image to enlarge

People wait outside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Portland office. The recession and the election have made aid to the poor an emotionally charged issue in the race for governor in Maine.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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"I have never seen anger this intense about anything, with the possible exception of the Vietnam War," said Eliot Cutler, one of three independent candidates on the ballot.

The face of welfare in Maine might be a mother buying cigarettes with her state-issued debit card. It might be an elderly neighbor on the edge of becoming homeless.

Both pictures are accurate -- and that's one of the reasons that Maine's complex system of aid to the poor creates starkly different views of welfare and the people who receive it.

With a gubernatorial election coming in between a deep recession and a billion-dollar budget crisis, the topic of public assistance for the poor may be the most emotionally charged issue in the Nov. 2 election.

Advocates and critics of the system both throw out statistics to support their views, but it is clear that Maine's system is facing historic pressures.

More than one in six Mainers -- about 18 percent -- are receiving public assistance to help pay for food, shelter or other basic needs, according to state data. Most receive food supplements, or food stamps, a federal program that has expanded to record enrollments in Maine and nationwide.

If you include MaineCare, a government health insurance program, the number of Mainers getting some public assistance jumps to nearly one in three, or 29.7 percent. That's 391,178 adults and children, state records show.

A record number of Mainers -- 56,000 -- are counted as unemployed, and more than 150,000 -- one in nine -- lived below the poverty line last year, according to state and federal data. Long-term trends, including a rapidly aging population, mean pressure on Maine's welfare system is likely to continue even as the economy recovers.

Government is spending about 45 percent more than it did five years ago to provide food and shelter assistance in Maine. The federal government has paid for three-quarters of the increase.

To critics, the growing size of the programs reflects a culture of dependence. "There's been a massive explosion in the amount of people trapped in Maine's welfare system," says Tarren Bragdon, director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

Defenders say Maine's poorest people are taking the blame for the state's financial pain. "(Critics) are somewhat creating an environment of fear, distrust and blame that makes it difficult for us to have a conversation," said Suzanne McCormick, president of the United Way of Greater Portland.



People often define welfare, and those who receive it, by what they see in the checkout line or on the street corner.

But while the principle of welfare may be so simple that everyone has an opinion about it, the actual system is a maze of programs that few understand completely.

"It's much more complex than people want to think it is," said Barbara Van Burgel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services office that oversees public assistance programs.

The term "welfare" has come to mean at least two dozen state, federal and local anti-poverty programs, each with its own purpose, rules and costs. The programs include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a core national welfare program, and General Assistance, which has been provided in town and city halls across the state since Maine became a state.

The "typical" welfare recipient varies, ranging from a child born into poverty in Washington County to an out-of-work truck driver in Portland.

(Continued on page 2)

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