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Beyond the attacks, ideology: What poverty looks like in Maine

The Mystic Tie Grange hall in Kenduskeag is one of the locations where the Samaritan Inc. food cupboard gives away food to people in need.
The Mystic Tie Grange hall in Kenduskeag is one of the locations where the Samaritan Inc. food cupboard gives away food to people in need. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 26, 2014, at 12:20 p.m.

An increasing number of Maine children are growing up poor.

Yet Gov. Paul LePage has offered no solutions to this ever-increasing problem.

Over the course of his administration, the number of homeless children in our state has grown, drastically increasing between 2010 and 2012.

While homelessness is going down nationally, in Maine it’s going up, driven by misguided policies in the guise of “reform.”

And according to the annual Kids Count report, nearly one in four children younger than five in Maine is growing up in poverty.

From the report: “Children who live in poverty, especially those who live in poverty for long periods of time, are at an increased risk for poor health, cognitive, social and educational outcomes. They are more likely to have physical, behavioral and emotional health problems; to have difficulty in school; to become teen parents; and as adults, to earn less.”

In other words, poverty has lifelong negative consequences for these children.

Many of these children live in loving, single-parent homes, often headed by their mother. These women are hard workers, but the hurdles to make ends meet often leave them teetering on the edge between stability and crisis, unable to find a path that will permanently lift them — and their children — out of low-wage jobs.

Once you get past the rhetoric and ideology-inspired attacks on Maine’s working poor, this is what poverty looks like in our state. It is most often women doing their best to provide for their children, while working in minimum wage jobs.

But that’s not the image that LePage and his supporters, such as Bangor Daily News columnist Susan Dench, are working overtime to create.

Instead of making an honest effort to address poverty, their divisive strategy stereotypes and demeans people living in poverty in order to turn public sentiment against them. Their goals have nothing to do with solving the problem of poverty.

While the governor claims that his policies are intended to move people from “welfare to work” the truth is that he has accomplished only half of this equation.

He has thrown thousands of families off of programs that help them meet their basic needs, but has done nothing to move them into jobs. In fact, he’s simply made more people homeless and made life even harder for thousands of low-income families.

Recently, the governor released data that he says show massive “fraud” in Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The program provides cash assistance to low-income families who qualify and is transferred to them through the use of an EBT card, which is similar to a debit card.

The governor identified less than three-tenths of 1 percent of all the transactions made using EBT cards during a particular period as suspicious.

We have to take fraud — even small amounts — seriously.

But an objective review of the data shows there’s little fraud in the EBT card system. The time, money and energy put into solving this issue should be proportionate to the extent and breadth of the problem. The governor should save some of his focus for the 99.7 percent of families who play by the rules but are struggling.

Instead, the high pitch from the governor and his allies isn’t about the facts or even about reducing fraud or making anti-poverty programs more effective.

He seems bent on destroying assistance programs, regardless of the impact on low-income and working families. And he knows that the only way the residents of Maine will allow this to happen is if he poisons their attitudes against not just government but against their neighbors who are struggling to get by.

While LePage talks about fraud, and writers such as Dench paint anecdotal pictures of people gaming the system, poverty continues to wreck families.

While the governor remains fixated on a small number of suspicious EBT card transactions, and the mythology of the “welfare cheat” continues to grow at his urging, poverty expands its grip on Maine unchecked.

It’s time that we have a real conversation about poverty, its causes and how we can help families — and particularly children — improve their lives and step into the middle class.

There are evidence-based solutions to poverty that we know work, such as education, child care, access to affordable health care and raising the minimum wage. Our governor has cut the first three and vetoed the last.

The attacks on poor families and the programs that can help them turn their lives around must end.

Robyn Merrill is a senior policy analyst at Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid organization that works to find solutions to poverty.

 

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