Portland might be popular with whoever compiles those “best of” lists in magazines, but it’s not always so beloved in the rest of Maine.

The state’s biggest city is an outlier in many ways. It has come out of the recession in better shape than many other Maine communities, with a lower unemployment rate and higher median income than the state average, and the people who live there are, on average, younger and more educated than residents of the state as a whole.

But even if the city and surrounding towns appear to be doing well, the state cannot afford to turn its back on them. Greater Portland is responsible for more than half of the state’s economic activity, and Maine won’t succeed if Portland is not succeeding. If economic growth stalls in Portland, it stalls for everyone.

That’s why it’s strange to see the LePage administration attacking Portland.

In a recent memo, the Department of Health and Human Services has singled out the city as the cause for the recent spike in the General Assistance budget. “The current system creates a perverse incentive to ‘spend more to get more,’ ” writes DHHS spokesman David Sorensen, implying that Portland could spend less. The LePage administration proposes a new reimbursement system where city taxpayers would be punished if General Assistance outlays exceed a certain target. This is projected to cost Portland $4.4 million a year.


The department’s memo, sent to the Maine media Jan. 29, lacks important context.

General Assistance is not a program that municipalities can control. State law requires cities and towns to have a program that helps anyone who has basic survival needs like shelter, food, medicine or heat. Portland delivers over half of the state’s General Assistance, but it spends more only when more people request help. Unless the law is changed, the city cannot legally turn eligible people away.

Also, even though General Assistance is distributed by municipalities, it functions as a regional program. For the same reasons that Portland is a good place to build a hospital or a baseball stadium, it is a good place to deliver services to needy people. For example, research by the city’s homelessness task force found that only one-third of people looking for shelter beds are residents of Portland. About another third come from other parts of Maine, and the rest come from outside the state. This is the nature of a service center community.

There is no indication in the DHHS memo of why demand for services is high in Portland. That’s an important question, because the answer should dictate the response.

There are unique conditions in Portland. Roughly 40 percent of the people receiving General Assistance in Portland are asylum seekers. There is a legal dispute between the city and state over whether people who are waiting for a court date to clarify their immigration status can be excluded from the program without changing the state law, but unless the state wins its case or the Legislature changes the law, Portland has got to keep distributing aid.


There is a plausible explanation for the General Assistance budget increase that does not involve excessive generosity by the city. Demand for General Assistance spiked in 2009, the first year of the worst recession in 80 years.

The budget has climbed each year since then, as the benefits of the recovery have been disproportionately distributed to the people at the high end of the income scale. That’s why in Portland you can see lines outside trendy restaurants and at the soup kitchen a few blocks away.

Cutting state spending on this last-resort program could have two results, both bad for the state’s economic engine: There would be more people living on the streets, trying to survive on handouts, and there would be more pressure to increase local property tax.

Portland is not Maine’s enemy. Business leaders from across the state should recognize that cutting this program this deeply would be a short-sighted way to save money. You don’t have to put Portland on your personal Top 10 list to see this as a bad move for Maine.

Correction: This editorial was updated at 11:06 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 3 to correct the amount of money Portland stands to lose under the governor’s proposed changes.