Welfare debate suffers in extreme political climate

By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN
Posted April 20, 2012, at 5:55 p.m.

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook a clip from a local Michigan news station that told of a 24-year-old woman who had won $1 million in the state lottery yet continued to receive and use food stamps.

She was videotaped purchasing Mountain Dew and other snacks at a convenience store using what that state calls her “bridge” card, essentially their version of Maine’s EBT — or electronic benefit transfer — card.

In the driveway of the new home she had just purchased with cash, she was met by a camera crew who asked her if she felt it was right to continue to use food stamps after she had won $1 million.

She noted that because she took a lump sum, actually her winnings were reduced to $750,000 and then, of course, there were taxes.

“I mean I kinda do,” she said. “It’s OK because I have no income. I don’t work and I have bills to pay. I have two houses.”

I found it troubling, just as I find it troubling when people use their EBT cards to purchase dozens of cases of bottled water to dump and return the empties for cash for cigarettes.

It’s insulting and injurious to those who so desperately and genuinely need the help.

Like the woman I stood behind in the checkout line at the grocery store a few months ago. She was an “extreme couponer.” She had a 5-inch-thick binder organized with colored tabs. I watched in amazement as the clerk rang in the coupons, deducting nearly $60 from her grocery bill. The $35 left she paid with her EBT card.

I complimented her on her savviness, her organizational skills, her money-saving tenacity.

She works full time, she said, but her husband had been laid off from his job. With three kids they qualified for some food assistance from the state.

“When I’m not working, I’m clipping and organizing coupons,” she told me. “It doesn’t take so long once you get the hang of it.”

So there’s her and her extraordinary sense of responsibility on one end of the spectrum, and the water dumpers and that Michigan lottery winner and the 20-something woman in front of me at Irving on Main Street last Friday night who used her EBT card to buy three Slim Jims and what appeared to be a nearly gallon-size blue Slurpee.

It’s not so difficult to see the divide. It’s nearly as wide as the gap the city of Bangor is facing now that Gov. Paul LePage has used his right to the line-item veto to slash through what was thought to be a budgetary compromise in the controversial, but mandated, general assistance program.

As a result Bangor is facing a $1.1 million reduction in state funds to its GA program, yet left with the state statute mandating it provide essential services to its poorest residents.

Some may say LePage took his campaign promise to reform the state’s welfare system to an extreme by using the legal — but never-before-used — line-veto option.

Perhaps, but he has proven himself to be somewhat of an extreme governor, so that should come as no surprise.

On Thursday night at the Bangor City Council’s budget workshop, there was some discussion about the council going “nuclear” by refusing to fill the $1.1 million gap.

That option would most likely involve providing assistance until the amount of money the city allocated for its share of GA was gone and then closing the doors.

That option would involve instructions to Shawn Yardley and the rest of the city staff at Health and Community Services to essentially break the law.

That option seems a bit extreme, as well.

Yardley has not commented about what he would say to such an instruction, but I’ve known him for quite a few years and I’m betting I could guess.

Welfare is an emotional subject. Those who want cuts and reform are often labeled as heartless and greedy. Those who are committed to ensuring the needy are cared for are seen as bleeding-heart liberals wanting to spend others’ money.

Unfortunately, we are in the midst of extreme economic hardship and the resolve of both sides has strengthened — perhaps to a point beyond reason.

I believe there is such a thing as common-sense welfare policy, but it will never be implemented by those governing in the extremes, and right now the federal, state and, I’m starting to think, even local governments are operating in those parameters.

And that way of governing has a way of trickling down to the rest of us.

Take this response from one of my Facebook friends to my post about the Michigan lottery winner.

Indicating that I was “impugning fraud” onto an entire class of recipients, she wrote: “That’s how stories like these are used to attack a program. But, then, I like the other children in my kids’ classes to have access to a healthy diet.”

The suggestion, it would seem, is that I, and others who object to such abuse of the system, have no use for children from low-income homes and care nothing about whether they have healthful food to eat.

Seems a stretch to me. I don’t feel that way at all, and I’m guessing she probably doesn’t agree with what the Michigan lottery winner was doing. But it got emotional and it got extreme and it got just a bit nasty — it accomplished absolutely nothing, and governing by the same logic won’t, either.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/20/living/blogs-and-columns-living/welfare-debate-suffers-in-extreme-political-climate/ printed on July 30, 2014