February 9

Maine Voices : Let’s reform thinking about welfare

The complex system must reflect current knowledge of all the factors that create a need for social safety nets.

By Patricia Callahan

AUGUSTA — Gov. LePage’s State of the State address sent me searching for my dictionary. In my tattered American Heritage, there are two entries for the word “reform.”

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Gov. LePage delivers his State of the State address at the State House in Augusta on Tuesday. A writer says a better understanding of welfare would deflate the governor’s contention that “welfare hurts working Mainers.”

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

About the author

Patricia Callahan is a resident of Augusta.

The first is quite extensive with multiple definitions for the transitive, intransitive and adverbial uses. Most definitions referred to the word in relation to government or belief systems. The second entry simply read: “To form again … to become formed again.”

I was trying to put my finger on why I find the discourse on welfare reform so pejorative, because I am for welfare reform. The definitions helped me see that the kind of welfare reform I want, as in the first entry, is a process that begins with the simplicity of the second entry.

We need to reform our understanding of this complex system misrepresented by the single word “welfare.” We need to form this understanding again, reflecting current knowledge of the variety of social, economic and medical factors that contribute to the necessity of social safety nets and support systems.

A newly formed understanding of welfare would deflate Gov. LePage’s anti-MaineCare expansion battle cry that “expanded welfare hurts working Mainers.”

I am a single mother and a working Mainer with a strong work ethic and a college degree. I have never earned enough to get my family off MaineCare. Those who do get across that line often find health care relatively inaccessible, given the high cost of their premiums and the exorbitant deductibles.

I don’t know how many other working MaineCare recipients there are, but I can imagine they, like me, feel helped, not hurt by the medical care they receive. I do know that 30 percent of families in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (sometimes called food stamps) are working and being helped, not hurt, by that welfare.

I can’t speak for all working welfare recipients as a collective whole, but the most significant pieces of welfare reform I’d like to see are higher wages and more jobs. I’m tired of feeling ashamed because two decades of bubble-driven economies, losses in manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages and increased costs have left me and my family behind.

Never mind getting off welfare, I’d be psyched just to be able to compete financially with what I earned in the 1980s without a college degree.

A reformed understanding of welfare would debunk Gov. LePage’s oversimplified assertion that “education is the only way to end poverty.” It is like saying that the only way to save a struggling business is cutting costs. Both situations call for a more nuanced approach.

Obviously education is one of the most powerful tools for reducing poverty. Maine’s school environments, however, are increasingly being undermined by the very manifestations of poverty they seek to combat. These manifestations make it harder for educators to do their jobs.

For example, too many Maine children are hungry. Malnutrition exacerbates behavioral and academic problems, making schools an ideal place to fight this epidemic, but free breakfast and lunch on school days are not enough.

Also, too many Maine children are bringing baggage from trauma and/or neglect and/or family struggles into school with them, another source of academic and behavioral problems. The various interventions necessary to support these students need to be expanded and reinvented to address hunger, youth homelessness, addiction, etc.

Without increased interventions, Maine will continue to see that the students most in need of education to escape poverty are being truant, expelled, or dropping out.

If education is such a priority for the governor, where are the proposals for ending this crisis of empty bellies and heavy hearts in our schools? Maine schools already receive significant sums for special education services.

Gov. LePage welcomed ideas, but increased funds for nutrition and other interventions would be “expanded welfare,” which “hurts working Mainers.” Is it OK, though, if a potential expansion supports education, which is “the only way to end poverty”?

The governor would do well to reform his understanding of welfare and welfare reform. A newly formed understanding would have him promoting the proposal to expand pre-kindergarten to all school districts as welfare reform. The earlier we intervene in the lives of Maine children, the more likely they and their families will escape poverty and the less likely they will require more costly interventions later in life.

Welfare reform is more than just fraud investigations and controlling purchases. I know my personal welfare reform wish list is a great deal more comprehensive. Ahead of higher wages and more jobs, I’ve added a new entry: a governor with a reformed understanding of welfare reform.

— Special to the Telegram

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