In his Sept. 28 column, Stephen Bowen brought attention to a very important issue: Many Maine people are in need. Unfortunately, as is common with Bowen and his cohorts at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, rather than taking a constructive look at this problem, he instead focused much of his piece on pushing his own political agenda by laying blame on Maine’s policies and its elected leaders. This is neither helpful nor fair to Maine people as we work to rebound from our current economic recession.
As a member of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services, I know that Maine’s safety programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and MaineCare are more important now than ever.
When we talk about these programs and those who receive them, it’s important that we recognize that Maine’s most vulnerable residents are not centered in one remote location in the state. They are your next-door neighbor who lost his or her job three months ago or your daughter’s classmate who is one of the 25,000 children in Maine who would go without basic needs like housing, food and heat if it were not for benefits like TANF.
Recipients of these programs are not staying on them for life. In fact, 85 percent of TANF recipients receive the benefit for two years or less and, since 1996, 63,000 families have left Maine’s program providing temporary assistance.
Maine’s increased use of safety net programs is not due to failed policy as Stephen Bowen suggested. Believing that would be shortsighted and not effective; it is due to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Right now, more than 100,000 workers in Maine are unemployed or underemployed because of the recession — that’s more people than the estimated 2009 population of Franklin, Sagadahoc and Washington counties combined, according to the U.S. Census.
Many are unable to meet basic needs of their family for food, shelter or medical care. This increased need comes during a period of diminishing resources. Current General Fund spending, in inflation adjusted terms, is lower than it was in 1999, and the outlook for our next biennial budget is glum.
We’re facing an $800 million budget shortfall that some estimate could grow to be more than $1 billion. If we were to fill that hole with cuts alone, the Maine Center for Economic Policy estimates we would lose another 20,000 to 25,000 jobs spread throughout the public and private sector and see an increase in Maine residents who will need services but will not be able to get them because of a lack of funding.
Now is no time to scapegoat or remove the support most likely to help Maine residents persevere in a changing economy. While Mr. Bowen is laying blame and pushing partisan messaging, it’s important for Maine residents to look beyond it and say, “Enough already! Let’s work together to get Maine residents and Maine’s economy back on secure ground.”
To do that, we need to work together to re-evaluate and restructure Maine’s safety net programs so that they better help Maine working families that are falling through the cracks. Which means we have to:
Help Mainers upgrade their skills and attain higher education so they can compete for new jobs with higher wages and more stable employment prospects.
Redesign programs to make sure they are more flexible to meet the needs of the populations beings served and strengthen the supports available to families transitioning from TANF to work.
Make sure that Mainers juggling work and family know that these programs exist and they can access them whether they live in Portland or Fort Kent.
Most importantly, we need to make sure such programs assist hardworking families who are currently falling through the cracks, rather than putting them on the chopping block year in and year out.
Mr. Bowen and I do agree on one thing: We want fewer families living in poverty, our economy to grow and future prosperity for all Maine residents. To achieve these things, we need to set aside inflammatory rhetoric and work together for a better Maine future.
Anne Perry, D-Calais, represents part of Washington County in the Maine House of Representatives. She is the House chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee and a nurse.