Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald recycled familiar, unsubstantiated stereotypes during his Dec. 12 tirade against “lazy” welfare recipients who move to his city in search of “generous” benefits.
Gov. Paul LePage relied on the same convenient myths Wednesday when he told a Bangor Chamber of Commerce audience that Maine “ is the most generous welfare state in the country.”
Macdonald later apologized for his outburst during a meeting on school overcrowding, but his reasons for scapegoating welfare recipients demand refutation. It’s time to set aside misperceptions about Maine’s status as a destination for welfare recipients who prefer public assistance over work. Doing so will allow policy makers to focus on the state’s and nation’s shared struggle to reverse trends that see more people living in poverty.
Little evidence exists to show that welfare recipients relocate to maximize their eligibility for benefits. A study by Northwestern University researcher Bruce Meyer titled “ Do the Poor Move to Receive Higher Welfare Benefits?” found that “Over a five-year period less than 2 percent of high-school dropout single mothers are induced to migrate to receive higher welfare benefits. … These estimates suggest that state governors and legislators should be more worried about the effect of benefit levels on participation by their own constituents, than about the effects of benefits on migration of single mothers.”
A more basic problem undermines Macdonald’s contention that people move from Massachusetts and New York to live better on public assistance programs in Maine. The quality of life might be better, but the welfare payments aren’t.
Massachusetts pays more to households receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families than Maine does. The maximum monthly grant for a Massachusetts household of three is $633, which includes a rental allowance for families who don’t live in subsidized housing. Maine’s maximum monthly TANF benefit for a three-person household is $485.
New York’s TANF benefits vary from county to county based on costs of living, but they easily exceed what Maine offers. A 2011 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Foundation state-by-state comparison of TANF benefits showed Maine with the lowest monthly grants in New England.
Massachusetts and New York are among the few states that offer “safety net” programs to families whose 60-month lifetime eligibility for TANF expires. Maine’s enforcement of that limit this year — which reduced the state’s TANF caseload from 13,522 in January to 9,422 in November — aims to discourage the type of long-term dependence that Macdonald blamed for stresses on Lewiston’s municipal services and school system.
As convenient as it would be to attribute the strains poverty places on public services in Maine to an influx of people from away, data and logic dictate otherwise. State and municipal officials working to adapt General Assistance, an emergency relief program administered by municipalities and funded jointly by state and local dollars, must acknowledge that poverty in Maine is homegrown and can’t be alleviated by establishing a means test to determine who will be allowed to move here.
Critical thinking and data also disarm a second fallacy repeated by Macdonald: that welfare recipients and their children are “lazy.” A 2010 survey of Maine TANF households found that 97 percent of respondents reported having work experience “with an average of three jobs in the past five years.”
In a report of preliminary findings from an analysis of long-term General Assistance recipients, University of New England researcher Tom McLaughlin, who also worked on the 2010 TANF survey, reported in September to the General Assistance working group that 80 percent of those surveyed had worked within the past five years.
Both studies identified health problems, either suffered by recipients or their children, as major barriers to independence. The General Assistance study indicated that 90 percent of respondents suffered from adverse childhood experiences such as homelessness, hunger, abuse or lack of medical care.
A Stanford University study titled “ The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty” suggests that children who grow up poor are far less likely to succeed in school and adulthood, not because their parents model dependent behavior but because living in poverty creates cognitive and physical disadvantages.
“Generational welfare” results from the debilitating effects of long-term poverty, not laziness or easy living derived from milking a public assistance system that provides a family of three less than $500 per month. Mainers who are serious about addressing the problem must reject hackneyed stereotypes that demonize low-income residents.
It’s time for Maine leaders like Macdonald and LePage to stop blaming poor people and focus on the toll exacted on the state’s most vulnerable residents by a stagnant economy, public-health backsliding and an inability to train skilled workers for 21st-century jobs.