Few issues generate the kind of emotional response from Mainers these days as welfare — which has become a catchall term for any and all social service government subsidies.
As the economy struggles to rebound from recession, Maine workers and voters grow increasingly frustrated about what many perceive as a system that rewards dependency over hard work. It’s no surprise that welfare reform has gained momentum in the gubernatorial race.
Republican Paul LePage has made it one of the centerpieces of his campaign. He mentions welfare in nearly every speech he makes often to the delight of his conservative followers. His main points are that the state needs to tighten eligibility for subsidy programs and set firm time limits. Many times on the campaign trail, LePage has said the state should buy welfare recipients a bus ticket to Massachusetts once they reach their limit in Maine.
Independent Eliot Cutler outlined his plans for welfare reform at a Wednesday news conference. He agrees that the system needs reform, but also acknowledges the complexities and misconceptions about welfare.
“We’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve had to scrape by,” Cutler said during his announcement in Augusta. “I have been very lucky that I have never had to receive public assistance personally. But I know an awful lot of people who have, and I understand how important it is to people. I also understand that in the state of Maine we don’t let people lie in the middle of the road.”
Democrat Libby Mitchell has not released a specific plan for welfare reform but said in an interview on Wednesday that the best antidote for welfare is a good job.
“I don’t think it does any good to beat up on the people who are most hurt by this recession,” she said.
Maine welfare study
Welfare reform has generated plenty of discussion recently outside the governor’s race as well.
A report released last week by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center contends that Maine is the most welfare-dependent state in the nation. The study concluded that one in three Mainers is on some sort of welfare, including food stamps, MaineCare health insurance and heating assistance, among other programs.
Several other state policy groups and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services have denounced the center’s report as mostly inaccurate.
Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Maine DHHS, said her biggest concern with the MHPC report was its distortion of statistics to create a misleading story. For instance, the report claimed Maine ranked second among states for households receiving food stamps. Harvey said Maine is actually second in putting food stamps in the hands of eligible people, which is a big difference.
“It means we’re doing a good job administering federal funds,” she said.
Sandy Butler, a professor of social work at the University of Maine, said the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s report was not well-researched. The biggest problem, she said, was that the report did not distinguish between federal aid, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and state aid, like general assistance.
“Maine has done a good job of taking care of people in need; we should be proud of that,” Butler said. “These families are not lazy. Nobody is getting rich. It’s so easy to put people on welfare under a microscope … but they almost never know the whole situation.”
Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center said he stands by the report and believes it highlights many of the reasons Mainers are frustrated.
“We’ve gone from being a system that we all wanted to have available to one that has become a way of life,” he said.
What the candidates say
During campaign events, LePage often refers to what he calls “the shackles of economic slavery” wherein the system encourages people to stay on public assistance and discourages them from getting a job. The Republican has touted a five-point plan plan for reforming welfare that involves instituting more strict eligibility and work requirements and creating a tiered benefit system so recipients wouldn’t lose all of their assistance at once.
He also wants to set a 60-month limit for programs such as TANF and general assistance and wants to focus programs on the truly needy. LePage said Maine’s eligibility requirements are too lax and that fosters the notion that Maine is a “welfare state.” His plan includes barring convicted felons and noncitizens from receiving benefits.
Cutler’s nine-point plan offers similar ideas, including a tiered system, better scrutiny of fraud and abuse, time limits for benefits and making DHHS more accountable. The independent acknowledged the complexity of the term “welfare,” which is a combination of programs mostly set and funded by federal laws, over which a Maine governor would have little control.
“Reform doesn’t happen through sound bites and cavalier threats to buy welfare recipients bus tickets to Massachusetts,” Cutler said.
Although Mitchell has not outlined a specific welfare reform plan, she said it’s something she’s worked on a lot over her many years in Augusta.
“It’s incredibly complicated and we have to acknowledge that there are people who stay on [welfare programs] longer than they should,” the Democrat said. “But rather than criticize them, we should empower them.”
Mitchell said that offering incentives for health care and employment would go a long way to reducing the burden on some welfare programs.
Shawn Moody, also running for governor as an independent, released a statement on Wednesday that called for an end to “the smorgasbord of welfare benefits” and touting a plan he called “welfare to workfare.”
Moody said Maine people are caring and compassionate to people in need but also recognize that Maine is much too generous with its welfare benefits.
The final independent candidate, Kevin Scott, said Wednesday that any plan to reform Maine’s welfare system at this point is “merely political posturing.”
“I don’t believe that any candidate who has met with the commissioner of DHHS, as I have, can realistically come out with a welfare reform package without a handle on how federal funds flowing into this state are being used,” he said.
Scott envisions a strong workfare system in which people on public assistance be given work to do in their communities.
Welfare reform has been the subject of nationwide debate since 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton initiated a mandate for states to begin reforming their respective systems.
DHHS data suggests that Maine is no worse off than other states in that regard. The number of people benefiting from TANF in Maine in 1995 was nearly 55,000. In 2000, the number dropped to 26,000 and has stayed at about that level for the past decade.
“When welfare reform happened in 1996, a lot of people came off, and those were the people who were most equipped to work,” Butler said. “What we’re left with is people facing a lot of barriers.”
The idea of simply sending welfare recipients back to work makes two very big assumptions, she said: That there are jobs available for them and that recipients are qualified for those jobs. Other issues often overlooked include child care, transportation and mental and physical health issues.
Still, Harvey said more than 50 percent of Maine’s TANF recipients have some type of job. She also said that as many as 70 percent of Mainers who receive TANF benefits do so for one year or less. Only about 4 percent receive TANF for more than five years, the limit proposed by LePage and Cutler. The majority of those are families are headed by an adult who is permanently disabled.
Another program most often associated with the term “welfare” is general assistance, which grew out of the Great Depression as an emergency program. Today, it’s the only state program administered directly at the municipal level.
All 492 communities in Maine have a general assistance program, although they vary considerably in size. The state pays for 50 percent of what is administered to those in need, whether it’s a heating bill or a rent voucher or some other assistance. In some cases, where the need is especially high, the state pays 90 percent.
The state does not keep statistics on general assistance but rather allows each municipality to monitor its own programs. The numbers vary greatly from town to town and depend on need.
Butler said she hopes that any new administration will allow Maine to continue to be a generous state.
“We need to remember that if we cut all our state money, we won’t get any federal dollars,” she said. “How would they deal with that?”
Maine’s political climate
For decades, the political climate nationally and in Maine has suggested that Democrats are more likely to continue to extend social service programs while Republicans are in favor of scaling those programs back.
“It’s one of the issues LePage wants to talk about and exploit,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. “He has brought it up more than a lot of other Republicans and it certainly fits in with the tea party.”
But where does that put an independent like Cutler who both acknowledges the need for welfare programs but believes they should be tightened?
Melcher said he wasn’t surprised to hear about Cutler’s plan because the independent has offered a wide range of detailed policy proposals.
As for Mitchell, Melcher agreed that anyone who thinks the system is broken is likely going to point fingers at the longtime legislator.
“In the governor’s race, she’s the only incumbent,” he said. “I think on a lot of issues, this vote could be a referendum on what people think is wrong.”
What voters think, though, is often based on emotion and extreme examples rather than trends. State health officials report that the rate of welfare fraud and abuse is consistently lower than 1 percent, but that number is widely challenged.
“I’ve always said that we are not the police of the decisions that poor people make,” Harvey said. “We take fraud and abuse very seriously, but I think right now there are a lot of people complaining about people who have less than them. They don’t want to be them so they say ‘let’s pick on them.’”