This expert could help fix welfare

Posted Feb. 18, 2011, at 7:36 p.m.
Last modified March 02, 2011, at 12:45 p.m.

I’m thinking that if I was Shawn Yardley, I might just find an easier way to earn a buck.

That he doesn’t, says a lot about who he is and is exactly why Gov. Paul LePage and his administration should be reaching out to him to help make changes in the state’s welfare system.

Yardley has a pretty impressive educational and work background, a near-stellar reputation in his community and an admirable work ethic.

He probably could make a pretty decent salary working for any organization without nearly the emotional involvement and hassle that his current job involves.

On top of everything else he deals with as the director for Bangor Health and Community Services, he found himself last week looking for $15 to help a single mom in need of aid in Ohio.

She had given birth in Bangor, moved to Ohio, and was applying for government assistance there. In order to do so she needed to prove that her baby was actually hers. That meant a certified birth certificate.

She called City Hall in Bangor and found out the cost for that was $15. She didn’t have it. Yardley got the call for help.

He got 15 bucks from a charitable source, and that helped the single mother in Ohio to start the rest of the process necessary to get the food assistance she needed to feed her baby.

No cost to the state of Maine taxpayer.

Yardley heard the young mother’s story. Knew she legitimately qualified for assistance. Saw the silly barriers that stood in her way and found a way to help her without using taxpayers’ money — for $15.

Yardley gets as angry as the next guy when he encounters someone abusing the welfare system.

He and his staff were incensed when they learned last summer that a woman had used her government food card to purchase five cases of bottled water, which she then dumped out in the parking lot and returned the empty bottles for cash she used for cigarettes.

Yardley and his staff instituted a change that closed that loophole as it related to people who received General Assistance food vouchers from the city of Bangor.

The plan didn’t even require an act of Congress. They simply changed the rule so that a person with a city food voucher could still purchase drinks in returnable bottles, but they had to pay the bottle deposit upfront in cash.

It was an act that didn’t involve taking food vouchers away from truly needy individuals; it simply eliminated an opportunity of abuse by those ready to take advantage of it.

It was a solution that was brilliant in its simplicity and effectiveness.

Each morning when he arrives at work, Yardley is met by desperate people standing in the cold waiting to apply for General Assistance.

Many wait for hours.

“There’s this perception out there that people getting assistance spend their days sitting around on the couch eating food purchased by hardworking taxpayers. I’m not saying those cases don’t exist to a small degree, but I’m telling you the great majority of people seeking assistance do not want to be doing so. They are humble and desperate and scared, and they wait for hours and fill out mountains of paperwork,” he said.

Turns out, for the most part, surviving when you are poor takes a lot of work.

LePage’s proposed biennial budget could reduce Bangor’s General Assistance allotment by as much as $260,000 and would limit GA recipients to 30 days of help.

In Bangor, most people receiving General Assistance do so for more than 30 days, but for less than six months, and for most the assistance is used to pay rent.

Such sharp reductions almost assuredly would result in a giant increase in the number of homeless families across the state.

“What seems to be lost on the people who are so angry about welfare is that helping these people have a place to live for a while allows them to take the steps necessary to graduate out of the system. It’s pretty hard for a homeless woman with two kids to go out each day and look for work. There are countless barriers in her way. She has no phone number, no address and no safe place for her kids to be,” Yardley said.

The staff at Bangor Health and Community Services takes great pride in ferreting out those trying to take advantage of the system “because we see the real need every single day.”

“We deny about 18 percent of people who apply, but what happens to the people who are scamming the system?” Yardley asked. “I don’t think the state is prosecuting many of those people. The only consequence a person faces who tries to scam the system is that they won’t get the benefits that they didn’t qualify for anyway. Not much of a deterrent.”

Shawn Yardley and his wife, Rita, are not rich people. They raised their children on a tight family budget and helped put them through college. When they were all on their way, the couple heard of and ended up adopting three little girls — sisters — in desperate need of a home.

Today when he and his wife could be kicking back just a bit, they are raising three more children who needed help and providing them with opportunities they might never have known.

And every single day, he goes to his office before 8 a.m. and tries to find help for the Mainers who need it.

Do some take advantage? You bet. Yardley will be the first to admit that. Do most? No. Does the welfare system need more accountability? Yes.

Shawn Yardley is not taking the easy way out. He looks into the faces of the young and the old and the needy each day. He’s a worker. He pays his taxes. He and his staff are always looking for the ones taking advantage.

He’s doing the job, and Gov. LePage would be quite smart if he reached out to him and asked how to make real and fair changes to the state’s welfare system.

reneeordway@gmail.com

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