Maine’s welfare abuse a matter of policy

By Stephen Bowen, Special to the BDN
Posted Sept. 27, 2010, at 8:52 p.m.

Today, we introduce the second of our new columnists — Stephen Bowen. Stephen, who directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, will offer commentary on a variety of state issues from a conservative perspective, a local voice that has been absent from these pages for too long.

As a former lawmaker and teacher, he also will bring a breadth of experience to his commentary, which will appear on these pages every other Tuesday. His blog can be found at www.GreatSchoolsforME.org.

Last week, Rosa Scarcelli made her debut on these pages. Rosa, who is CEO of Stanford Management, an affordable housing company, was a political newcomer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. During the campaign, many people were impressed with her no-nonsense approach and fresh ideas. Her column will appear on these pages every other Thursday.

Pages for both columnists can be found at www.bangordailynews.com on the Opinion tab.

With a diverse range of opinions on our pages and website, we aim to be Maine’s top destination for debate about our home state. Through reader surveys and other comments, it is clear that you put a premium on columns about Maine issues and events, with clear, engaging writing a big plus. As always, we want you to be part of the conversation through letters to the editor, guest columns, ClickBack comments or online postings.

— Susan Young, editorial page editor

···

It is hard for me to believe, but it was nearly nine years ago that the first OpEd column I ever wrote appeared in the Bangor Daily News. A lot has changed since then. My oldest daughter, then two, now is an eye-rolling middle-schooler. My youngest daughter, as yet unborn when the piece was published, just started third grade.

For Maine, though, far too little has changed in the intervening years. The topic of my column, as it would be for so many of the columns that periodically followed it in this paper and others, was Maine’s high tax burden.

I argued in the piece, which was written in response to a “taxes are the price we pay for civilization” column by a Democratic state legislator, that Maine’s high taxes were not a consequence of its rural geography or the uniquely costly needs of it residents. The state’s tax burden, I suggested, wasn’t a matter of circumstance at all, but a matter of policy.

“It is a myth,” I wrote, “that Maine’s high taxes are a product of anything other than politics.”

Now, all these years later, I find myself making the same argument, but this time about welfare.

A couple of weeks ago, the Maine Heritage Policy Center released a major report on the state’s welfare system, which I co-wrote. At 30 pages, it is the longest, most thoroughly researched report the center has ever released.

The central research question we sought to answer was this: Maine’s poverty rate is below the national average, yet we have some of the highest levels of welfare dependence in the nation. Why is that?

Maine has a higher percentage of its population on food stamps than all states but one, ranks second in the percent of its population on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance and is second in the percent of residents on Medicaid.

No other state is even close to Maine’s comprehensive level of welfare dependency.

According to the Census Bureau, we are one of only a handful of states in the nation that spend more on welfare programs than on K-12 education.

But we are less poor than the average state. So why do we have so many people on government support programs of one kind or another?

As we discovered in the course of writing our report, policymakers in Augusta have enacted policies that have had the effect of expanding enrollment in welfare programs. We have liberal eligibility guidelines for most of these programs, have few work or job search requirements, fail to enforce any meaningful time limits for the receipt of these benefits, and do almost nothing to fight fraud and abuse.

Simply put, we make it easy for people to get on these programs and easy for them to remain on them, and we do so as a matter of state policy.

In fact, state policy is why Maine faces so many of the challenges confronting it today. We have high energy costs because laws passed in Augusta make Maine a costly place to generate electricity. We have high health insurance premiums because laws passed in Augusta make health insurance extraordinarily expensive.

Why have we seen almost no job growth in Maine in the nine years since I wrote my first column for the BDN?

It is not because we are rural, because we are remote, because we are poor or because we lack ingenuity or a strong work ethic. It is because policymakers in Augusta have consciously enacted legislation that makes Maine one of the worst states in the nation to run a business.

Why a governor or a state legislator would want to have 29 percent of the state’s population on a public assistance program, or want the state to have high energy or health insurance costs or a lousy business climate is anyone’s guess, but that has been the consequence of the policies they’ve enacted.

The good news is that policies can be changed, and that is why this fall’s elections are so critical. Those who are sent to Augusta — and the policies they put in place once there — will have a profound impact on the lives and livelihoods of Maine people.

That was the argument I tried to make all those years ago, and as the gubernatorial and legislative races head into the final stretch, it is a fact that voters should keep foremost in their minds.

Stephen Bowen directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His blog can be found at www.GreatSchoolsforME.org.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/09/27/opinion/mainersquos-welfare-abuse-a-matter-of-policy/ printed on August 28, 2014