Coming home from swimming lessons with my daughter on Saturday, we got caught at a red light at the corner of High Street and Forest Avenue in Portland.
It’s not uncommon for a person to stand there with a sign, asking for change, help, food or work. Even in the best economies, there are people left on the outside. And this economy, even though it’s improving, will never be confused with the best of times.
Typically, the panhandlers are older and male. Sometimes they say they are homeless and veterans. Sometimes the plea is less specific.
The young woman standing there Saturday had a desperate plea scratched onto a piece of a box: “Pregnant & Homeless. Please Help. God Bless.”
There was no doubt she was pregnant. Her face was haggard. She looked tired and too old for her age.
I gave her the money I had, which wasn’t much. And I drove on, trying to explain in simple terms to my daughter how a pregnant woman would be standing on the corner asking strangers for money.
There are a lot of reasons why people end up in a situation like that. Bad luck. Bad attitudes. Bad friends. Bad choices. Bad schools. Bad parents. Bad public policy. Does it really matter which?
There’s plenty of blame and few answers.
But this young woman sticks with me, even now days later. Not because I think she’s unusual or the exception, but because I know that she is not. There are many, many others like her. Young and alone, a baby on the way, with no place to turn except for the pity of privileged strangers driving by, moving on with a much better life.
It makes me sad. And it makes me angry.
When I look at the proposals put forward by Gov. Paul LePage to balance the state budget, I know there is a better way.
While he’s making the case that the state is broke, he wants to cut taxes on the wealthy, on corporations and businesses, and for me. And he wants to leave the bill with a homeless, pregnant woman standing on a street corner in Portland.
The varied budget proposals that Gov. LePage has introduced include taking health insurance away from the parents of children who are covered by MaineCare and from childless adults who are the poorest and most desperate in our state. He wants to place arbitrary limits on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and deny General Assistance to thousands. And he wants to end funding for job training.
I’ve been on the inside of the Governor’s Office during tough budget times. In 2008, 2009 and 2010 when revenues kept dropping, Gov. John Baldacci kept cutting spending.
We reduced General Fund spending every budget year beginning in 2008, but we worked very hard to limit the impact on the most vulnerable people in our state and not raise taxes.
Some of the decisions we made were difficult. It was often a choice between bad and very bad.
I bring this up to say I understand the difficulty in bringing a budget into balance, the competing demands and the constantly changing revenue picture.
When I see that we as a state are considering tax cuts while at the same time claiming that our state can’t afford to make sure its children and its struggling families have health care, or enough to eat, or a roof over their heads, I get angry.
How can we do this?
How can we tolerate ourselves when we lead a young woman to a street corner, wish her luck and then hope that charity continues?
All the money in the world won’t solve homelessness. The strongest economy in history won’t completely eliminate poverty. There will always be winners and losers.
But we have a decision about what we do. There are always choices, and it’s not necessary for the budget to be so callous.
While most of us can quickly forget that lonesome face on the street, there are consequences for going our own way — economic and moral consequences.
Without health care, the poor will also be the sick and unable to work. Without assistance, fewer children will break free from poverty. And without homes, more lives will be unstable.
We’re all going to pay for that. One way or another.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.