LEWISTON — Mayor Robert Macdonald’s proposal to create an online registry of welfare recipients had his constituents talking Friday – in coffee shops and restaurants, in businesses and on the street. The range of their opinions spoke to the ongoing battle, both in Maine and elsewhere, about the role and scope of public assistance programs.

Many people were angry with Macdonald, who made his proposal in a newspaper column, for trying to “name and shame” people.

“If he wants to do something, why doesn’t he try to create jobs instead of complaining about all these people that don’t have jobs,” said Leo Girardin, 67. “He thinks he knows everything, but all he’s doing is generalizing.”

Others, though, shared the mayor’s frustration, and there was a clear sense that Macdonald, a Republican and staunch critic of welfare recipients who is running for re-election, has tapped into a current of anger and resentment that runs through the community.

The Maine Republican Party, which this week launched a citizen’s initiative aimed at reducing welfare dependency, and Gov. Paul LePage, who grew up in Lewiston, have made welfare reform a top priority for years.

LEWISTON, ME - SEPTEMBER 25: Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald is calling for the state to publicize its list for welfare recipients. Lois, 71, and Claire, 70, Bourgoin of Lewiston talk about the proposal. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Lois and Claire Bourgoin support Mayor Robert Macdonald’s idea to put names of welfare recipients online. (Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Louis and Claire Bourgoin, both in their early 70s, said they support Macdonald’s idea. They said if an online registry ends up shaming people, that’s the cost of doing business.

“I think hard work is what’s missing,” Louis Bourgoin said over lunch at Simones’, a popular lunch spot. “We didn’t have food stamps or any of these things. We just worked a second job or took overtime.”

“The system is too easy to get a handout,” Claire Bourgoin added. “And these people can avoid getting a job because they probably do better by not working.”

The dynamics of Lewiston – economically distressed, increasingly diverse – add further fuel to this emotional debate, which likely will play a role in the upcoming election. Macdonald is seeking a third term, but he’s being challenged by Democrat Ben Chin and three others. Macdonald, who said Thursday that he’s working with local lawmakers to draft legislation to create a welfare registry, has long criticized the city for shouldering too big a burden when it comes to public assistance.

‘A TOUGH BALANCE’

In August, 448 people per 1,000 residents received some form of state assistance in Lewiston, compared to 264 people per 1,000 for the state as a whole, based on figures provided by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of Lewiston residents on the federal food stamp program last month was 11,059, or 305 per 1,000 residents. That’s twice the state rate of 151 individuals per 1,000, the DHHS figures show.

Similarly, there were 13.6 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cases per 1,000 residents in Lewiston (495 total cases), which is more than three times the state rate of 4.3 cases per 1,000 residents.

TANF is a federal cash benefit provided to families with young children. Food stamps also often go to families. Some expressed concern that children – not just their parents – would be publicly identified as welfare recipients under Macdonald’s registry.

“I think it’s hurtful and demeaning,” said Rachel Jalbert, 33, as she walked her dog through Kennedy Park. “I’m not sure we should be singling people out like that.”

Jalbert, who was born and raised in Lewiston, understands that the city has a high number of people on public assistance. She thinks there is probably a way to tighten the welfare system to ensure that dollars are spent appropriately.

“It’s a tough balance,” she said. “I don’t know that you can have a 100 percent foolproof system.”

‘SHAME TACTIC’

Pauline Griffin, 46, has a 7-year-old son and receives food stamps and TANF. She works, but her job doesn’t pay enough to cover her monthly expenses. That is a common complaint among social welfare advocates who want to increase the minimum wage.

Griffin said she feels bad enough going in to apply for assistance without worrying about the whole world knowing how much she gets.

LEWISTON, ME - SEPTEMBER 25: Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald is calling for the state to publicize its list for welfare recipients. Siiri Cressey, 38, of Lewiston, eats lunch on a park bench in Lewiston on Friday. Cressey, who receives asssistance for housing and disability, as well as food stamps, voices her opinion on the Mayor's plan. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Siiri Cressey, who receives asssistance for housing and disability, as well as food stamps, calls Macdonald’s idea “a shame tactic.”

“I don’t know why people need to know that,” she said. “I mean, what are they going to do, start using a calculator to see how it compares to what they make?”

Siiri Cressey, 38, has lived in Lewiston for the past eight years. She’s disabled and receives food stamps and federal housing assistance.

She said Macdonald’s idea is a “shame tactic, pure and simple.”

“Despite what he says, the people who get some sort of assistance, they need it,” Cressey said. “That need may be obvious or it may not. But for him or anyone else to make a judgment about whether someone deserves those benefits, that’s just incredibly ignorant.”

Cressey said she believes Macdonald’s comments only serve to further drive a wedge between poor people and the middle class.

Audrey Fillion, who works at a downtown Lewiston law firm, called the proposal “ridiculous.”

“I’m sure you can always cut back on fraud in any system, but people need a helping hand and they deserve a measure of privacy,” she said.

‘I SYMPATHIZE WITH HIM’

LEWISTON, ME - SEPTEMBER 25: Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald is calling for the state to publicize its list for welfare recipients. Justin Dube, 28, of Lewiston talks about the proposal. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Justin Dube said an online welfare registry would only hurt “the people who are embarrassed already.”

Justin Dube, 28, knows that there is fraud in the welfare system, saying that he’s seen it personally. But he doesn’t think creating an online registry would do anything to address that.

“The people who are trying to work the system don’t care,” he said. “It’s the people who are embarrassed already who this would hurt.”

Dube said the only other online registry he is aware of is the sex offender registry.

“So, he’s basically saying that people on welfare are the same as sex offenders,” he said.

Claudia Krasnow, 18, of Westchester County in New York, and Zoe Seaman-Grant of Charleston, South Carolina, are both Bates College students. They were having lunch on Lisbon Street on Friday and said they had heard about Macdonald’s idea that morning.

“It’s pretty messed up,” Seaman-Grant said. “If we want to assess programs and whether they are working or not, can’t we just look at the data and the dollars without outing everybody?”

Krasnow does believe a registry would deter people from applying for welfare – one of Macdonald’s stated goals – but she doesn’t agree that’s good.

“Why don’t we want to help people? I don’t understand that,” she said.

LEWISTON, ME - SEPTEMBER 25: Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald is calling for the state to publicize its list for welfare recipients. Jeff Burrill, who works for the city of Lewiston, talks about the Mayor's plan. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Jeff Burrill, who works for the city of Lewiston, said he sympathizes with Macdonald’s frustration.

Jeff Burrill, a city employee who knows Macdonald, says the mayor was trying to make a point.

“I think he’s frustrated by the enormous strain on the city’s resources and I sympathize with him on that,” he said.

Louis Caron, 69, likes the idea of a registry, but doesn’t believe it will pass.

“I’m surprised this stuff isn’t out there already,” he said. “Seems like you can get anything online. I’m all for transparency.”