Monday, March 10, 2014
In his first speeches as a candidate for governor in 2009, Paul LePage laid out a compassionate plan for reforming Maine's jobless assistance programs.
At a tea party gathering in Augusta on Nov. 7, 2009, LePage told the story of one of his employees at Marden's who was making $10 an hour and wouldn't take a raise because of a fear of losing her supplemental nutrition and child care assistance.
"What we have to do is tier our system so for every dollar they earn, we don't take it all away. We take some away and we encourage them to keep working so eventually they get off the system," said LePage.
Later, in other speeches, LePage also started talking about time limits, residency requirements and cuts, but he continued to make his plan for a tiered program the centerpiece of his agenda.
On Jan. 16, 2010, at a tea party rally in Stillwater, LePage again told the crowd the story of the Marden's employee (although this time she was making $12.50 an hour, working 25 hours a week and had two kids) and added more details to his plan.
It would begin at the state poverty level, and assistance would decrease by 20 percent at five stages until the worker was earning a living wage. Under LePage's proposal, the employee he cited could potentially both work full time and accept raises totaling almost $10 an hour until she fully transitioned off of the program.
"The problem isn't that we shouldn't help them, the problem is we should instill in our people, in our children to be self-reliant, to work, and as they work harder they keep more of their money," explained LePage.
If candidate LePage had followed through on his promises and turned his ideas into legislation, he would have found support from all sides.
"We certainly would have supported that. It would have given people exactly the help they need to survive in this economy, keep their families together and find work," said Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an organization that assists and advocates for Mainers in poverty.
"Right now the combination of wages and the support most people who need this assistance receive brings them nowhere near a living wage," Hastedt said.
When LePage won the election, however, his priorities changed. Gone was the five-tiered system. Gone were the proposed transition programs from welfare to work. Only the cuts remained. Instead of investing in Maine's workforce, he instead gave new tax breaks to Maine's wealthy.
In 2011, LePage proposed and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a series of cuts to Maine's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides support to very-low income children and their families.
At the same time, LePage claimed that health care coverage through MaineCare should be considered "welfare" as well and cut coverage for 27,000 uninsured working parents, young adults, seniors and people with disabilities.
Later, he vetoed the acceptance of federal health care funds, denying care for 70,000 more people despite the positive impact the money would have on the state's budget and general economy.
The language LePage directed toward people who were struggling to find work also became more severe. At the Republican Party convention in 2012, he addressed unemployed Mainers directly, telling them to "Get off the couch and get yourself a job."
Now, in his radio address this week, LePage is bragging about the 16,000 people in total he has cut off from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
According to a study conducted by professor Sandra Butler at University of Maine, we actually know a great deal about who these people are.
Thirty-nine percent of those who have lost this assistance because of LePage's new time limits have a work-limiting disability. Twenty-six percent have a child with a disability.
Only about 7 percent more have been able to find jobs since their assistance was cut, and median yearly income for affected families is about $3,120. Seventy percent have had to rely on food banks, one in three have had their utilities turned off and one in five have been evicted from their homes.
More people have become homeless than have found jobs, thanks to LePage.
The cruel cuts and senseless policies of Gov. LePage are all the more galling because of the words he spoke as a candidate. At one point, he obviously knew better and had plan for helping Mainers deal with a difficult economy. He made a conscious choice to turn away from those ideas and turn his back on tens of thousands of struggling people.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He can be contacted at: