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Who deserves credit for decline of Maine’s poverty rate?

Posted Sept. 19, 2013, at 5:58 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 20, 2013, at 5:51 a.m.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — A reduction in Maine’s poverty rate, announced this week by the U.S. Census bureau, is being touted by Republicans as proof that the policies of Gov. Paul LePage are working, but progressive advocacy groups attribute the decline to social service programs that have been in place in Maine and nationally for decades.

Maine’s poverty rate for 2012 was 12.8 percent, down from 13.4 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the U.S. poverty rate remained at about 15 percent over that same period. Republicans argued that the numbers are reflective of their smaller government ideals.

“Love it or hate it, reform is working,” wrote Maine House GOP spokesman David Sorensen in a memo to reporters after the latest census figures were released Tuesday. “Folks, this is a direct result of Republican reforms that tightened up Maine’s massive welfare system while encouraging work. We capped Maine’s previously unlimited cash welfare benefits at five years and used some of the savings to bolster job placement programs. … We reformed Maine’s regulatory jungle, cut taxes, improved our private health insurance market and got on the road to fiscal responsibility. … Opportunity is replacing welfare dependency as the product of public policy since Republicans came to power in 2010.”

Meanwhile, Democratic-leaning groups such as the Maine People’s Alliance continue to tout social service programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food vouchers to needy families, as a key component of the fight against poverty.

The U.S. House, led by Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, on Thursday passed a measure that would slash the program nationwide by $39 billion over 10 years. Approximately one in five Mainers rely on the anti-hunger program formerly known as food stamps, according to the MPA, with 64 percent of those recipients in families with children.

“For thousands of low-income Mainers, SNAP is the only source of support they receive to supplement their limited budgets and protect them from hunger,” said Kirsten Walter, executive director of the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston, in an MPA release.

A group of poverty analysts, including two who wrote a forthcoming book called “Legacies of the War on Poverty,” argued during a conference call with reporters Thursday that government programs play an important role in fighting poverty. The book analyzes the effect of almost 50 years of anti-poverty programs since President Lyndon Johnson launched a war on poverty in 1964, including new investments in early preschool, grants for college students, increases in Medicare and Medicaid, and the SNAP program.

Martha Bailey, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and one of the book’s editors, said the census bureau’s poverty numbers would be lower if the bureau counted government “non-cash benefits,” such as health insurance.

“The misconception we want to clear up is that the war on poverty has failed,” said Bailey, who referred to early childhood and job training programs, as well as food stamps as key influences against poverty.

“Children [whose families enrolled in these programs] went on to get more education and had better health as adults,” said Bailey. “They turned out to be great long-term investments in poverty and economic growth. The War on Poverty made tremendous progress. … Cutting poverty programs now affects long-term economic growth in that it really affects that human capital of our kids.”

Sheldon Danziger, an economist from the Russell Sage Foundation, blamed the the stagnant national poverty rate on an economy and national gross domestic product that have evolved downward from its “golden age” in the 1970s.

“One of the reasons poverty remains so high is that the economy has changed in ways that none of the planners in the War on Poverty could have predicted,” he said Thursday during the conference call with reporters. “If the rising tide had continued to lift all boats since the 1970s, we wouldn’t be talking about this.”

LePage and many legislative Republicans disagree and argue that social service programs such as Medicaid pull resources from other programs that could spur economic development. Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political strategist, said the programs’ effectiveness is overshadowed by their ballooning cost.

“All this dramatic spending and all these government programs that these people advocate for clearly aren’t working,” Littlefield said Thursday. He pointed to the neighboring state of New Hampshire, which the census bureau found had the lowest poverty rate in the country, as an example of how lower taxes also fight poverty.

“New Hampshire has no income tax and they benefit from it,” he said. “Less government frees people up. It helps the economy up and down the economic scale.”

Littlefield cited an October 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation that showed benefits for children involved in Head Start largely dissipate by the time those children reach the third grade.

“Why haven’t all of these welfare programs eliminated poverty?” said Littlefield. “What about the case that giving someone a good-paying job and the dignity of work, works for society?”

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