Beyond Welfare

Posted Sept. 17, 2010, at 9:35 p.m.

A report from a conservative think tank that blasted the state’s welfare system as so generous that it promotes dependency was immediately criticized, sometimes rightly, for playing too loose with numbers. Rather than debating the exact percentage of Mainers who get food stamps or child care assistance, policymakers of all ideological persuasions should be able to agree that too many of the state’s residents are reliant on government assistance programs.

With this admission, they could then focus their attention on what really matters — creating jobs so that fewer would need unemployment benefits, making sure those jobs come with wages high enough to support a family, and ensuring that health insurance is available and affordable so families aren’t forced to turn to government programs for their children to see a doctor.

Last week, the Maine Heritage Policy Center released a report called “Fix the System,” which claimed that Maine was the most welfare-dependent state in the country.

Despite skewed data — Maine did not spend $2.5 billion on welfare in 2008; most of the money comes from the federal government — and politically motivated recollection of history — big expansions of MaineCare and other social programs came during the King administration, so blaming Gov. John Baldacci is disingenuous — the report can serve as a needed wake-up call.

To do so, however, more clarity is needed. To make “welfare” look like a bigger drain than it is, the Heritage Policy Center had to include programs beyond what the public traditionally considers “welfare.” For example, it included total Medicaid expenditures. Currently, about three-quarters of this money comes from the federal government. More than half of Medicaid payments are for the disabled and seniors, hardly the type of people most think of when imagining those who abuse welfare. Another large chunk goes toward care for children.

For perspective, nearly $381 million in General Fund revenues are slated to go toward MaineCare (the state’s name for Medicaid) in the current state budget. Less than $32 million is earmarked for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and $7 million for General Assistance, programs that are traditionally considered welfare.

Further, Medicaid comes with strict federal guidelines, limiting the state’s ability to reduce benefits and enrollment.

Still, over time, Maine has eased eligibility requirements and increased benefits, often simply because the federal matching dollars were too good to pass up. While this may be well-intentioned, it is unsustainable and may lead some people to rely on easily obtained assistance.

Because of the persistent gap between state revenues and expenditures, lawmakers will have to debate whether Maine can continue to be as generous as it has been. To this end, the Maine Heritage Policy Center offers a good standard: “The next governor should work with lawmakers to establish a new mission for the Department of Health of Human Services, one that, while retaining a focus on ensuring care for the most needy, establishes as the primary purpose of the department the promotion of independence and self-reliance.”

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