I grew up poor by most standards in Washington County. At times, our family received free government peanut butter, free government cheese and used powdered milk to pour on our morning cereal. There were periods when my father received unemployment checks and, yes, even once or twice my mother may have used food stamps to put food on the table for her five growing boys. While I may have grown up poor materially, our family was rich in love, hard work and a spirit of determination.
That spirit of determination is at the heart of the American dream. Only in America can people grow up poor, yet through hard work, some luck, skills, and sometimes an education, alter their path from generational poverty, government dependency or hopelessness, desperation and frustration to achieve that American dream.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “All life is interrelated. All men are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” This moral assertion ties the bonds of poverty to compassion for an opportunity for our people to be part of the American dream.
Here in Maine, many families receive free or reduced lunch for their children who attend school. Here in Maine, many senior citizens who proudly worked their entire lives now must receive heating assistance to warm their homes in our cold winters. And, yes, here in Maine, seasonal workers from L.L.Bean, farming or forestry industries receive needed unemployment benefits to sustain their families during the natural slow periods of our economy.
I believe that Martin Luther King was right nearly half a century ago when he spoke of our “interrelatedness” and “inescapable mutuality.” While our family may have seen poverty in my youth, we worked together to grow family businesses, to serve our country in the armed forces and to receive a world-class education from a small Maine high school graduating class of 21 to receiving a degree from Harvard.
Poverty in Maine today is not a sentence for a life of hopelessness, but rather it is the essence of why government should aspire to provide a “hand up” to its citizens rather than a “handout.” Capitalism and the marketplace will reward those who acquire needed skills, educational qualifications and the determination to alter a life of government dependency.
That being said, we must also recognize that Republicans, compassionate conservative Republicans, should support programs that protect those most in need. Compassionate conservative Republicans should believe in God’s commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Compassionate conservative Republicans must seek to support policies that encourage economic growth and individual opportunities, while at the same time supporting a sustainable safety net for those most in need.
I am committed to these goals and will speak to their moral righteousness during the next two years. Therefore, I am committing myself to visit each and every county in our state during the next 18 months to visit areas of poverty, compassion and opportunity, beginning with activities on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is through leadership in action that we can begin to bridge the gap, as I have seen in my own life, between understanding that poverty and hope for opportunity are but two sides of the same coin.
Ken Fredette, R-Newport, is the Republican leader of the Maine House. This is his first in a series of monthly columns about the Maine Legislature.