HALLOWELL – Maine’s new governor and Legislature will do well to reread the Maine Sunday Telegram’s recent investigative series, “What is welfare?”

Like the sun slicing through a dense Maine fog, reporter John Richardson exploded myths, replaced anecdotes and innuendo with facts, and provided illuminating insights policymakers can use to restructure the programs that keep hardworking Maine people out of poverty.

By thoughtfully describing the complex federal and state programs Maine uses to meet these needs, the series helped to explain the recent anger, frustration and heated rhetoric over perceived faults in the existing system.

It was no surprise that by a margin of 55 percent to 15 percent in the Maine Today Media poll, Mainers agreed the state should provide temporary food and housing assistance when people are in need.

Mainers have always taken care of one another and will extend a helping hand when their neighbors fall on hard times. They also recognize that the people these programs serve are just like them but they need a little help to pay the rent, put food on the table and get health care for their kids.

With data and personal stories, the series demonstrated that:

  • Those most dependent on these programs are elderly or disabled and cannot work.
  • Most of the 56,000 Mainers unemployed in this deep recession would much rather work than seek government assistance.
  • Hundreds of thousands have jobs, but their incomes remain too low to cover all of their basic needs.
  • The 150,000 Mainers who live below the poverty level include many women and their children as well as elders and disabled people.

The series also illustrated that Maine has done a good job keeping administrative costs low to reach a larger proportion of families in need than in many states.

Policymakers will decide whether this in itself is a success or not, but most Mainers would question the wisdom of giving up federally funded benefits that help Mainers avoid hunger and homelessness.

They must also not lose sight of the ripple effect these programs have throughout Maine’s economy. In the depth of the recession, food stamps pumped more than $350 million in federal funds annually into the state’s economy.

These funds helped not only the families at risk of hunger but also their grocers, farmers, and communities.

The program generating the most controversy is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF is a lifeline to some 14,234 households, with 25,127 children.

It cost the state $24.6 million in 2010, just over 1 percent of the General Fund budget.

comparison, eight businesses alone received property tax refunds totaling almost $25 million in 2009 under the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program.

As the series points out, we spend a much larger share of the state’s General Fund budget on MaineCare, our system to provide health coverage with federal Medicaid funds.

Critics complain that under the existing system hospitals are underpaid (even though they receive about 23 percent of Maine state and federal Medicaid funds) and that too many people are eligible for MaineCare.

These complaints ignore the stubborn facts that health care costs for everyone in Maine are among the highest in the country, and that the majority of MaineCare expenses are spent on the elderly and disabled (60 percent) and children (22 percent).

The Telegram’s series made it clear that rather than trying to place blame, we need to focus on reevaluating programs to improve and make them even more effective.

We must assure that Mainers who want to work won’t lose health care or other assistance that keeps them from slipping into poverty.

The series is must reading for every state policy-maker.

It will prepare them as they face the challenge of balancing our limited financial resources and our values to provide a hand up to people in need during hard times and offer every Mainer the chance to prosper as our economy recovers.

 

– Special to the Telegram