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Welfare isn’t a dirty word

Posted Feb. 06, 2013, at 11:25 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 06, 2013, at 5:38 p.m.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.
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Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.

As I prepared this column addressing common objections to “welfare,” I wanted to speak to a public figure with strong negative opinions about our human services support system. Because Republicans have been most vocal in their criticisms, I looked to the party’s new chairman. But, after the new voice of Maine’s Republican Party, Richard Cebra, didn’t return my (long) phone message left at his home office, my inquiry via his website, or the letter I sent through the U.S. Postal Service, I resorted to his public comments to get a sense of his opinions.

As I’ve found so common among opponents of programs such as food stamps and MaineCare, Cebra seems to believe “welfare” is the government taking care of people who don’t want to take care of themselves. In his last column for The Bridgton News, he wrote, “Policies geared to free enterprise are increasingly rejected by people, who prefer that government take care of them.” In 2010, he went so far as to say in a radio address, “Those rugged Mainers of yesteryear have been replaced by people who have turned the safety net into a welfare hammock and a way of life.”

Well, just like the typical critics of “welfare,” it appears there are some things he doesn’t understand. First, he is ignoring the fact that government takes care of all of us.

We all benefit from government welfare programs. In fact, it’s right there in the preamble to The Constitution: “Promote the general welfare.” There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman in this country.

If you live in the United States, it would be nearly impossible to not benefit from government handouts paid for by the taxpayers. If you’ve driven on a road, you’ve benefitted from a taxpayer-funded program. Had any food not riddled with E. coli or other foodborne illnesses? Taxpayer funded program. Flushed your toilet, and you don’t have to treat the sewage yourself? That works because of taxes. Firefighters, police officers, emergency rescue workers, the list of benefits we all live with everyday goes on. All of us are living off other people’s taxes.

The second problem is the assumption that people should prefer misery to a higher quality of life. People who work themselves to the bone to try to make ends meet — whose lives are constant struggles filled with fear they will lose everything — but who don’t access what are perceived to be problematic governmental supports are supposed to be models for everyone else?

How does my having the courage to say I need help make me less strong than someone who grinds away at life in misery, unwilling to ask for help? When someone who has gone before tells me they barely made it, couldn’t pay the bills, or lived without a steady home for a long time, it doesn’t make me think, well, gee, then, I should really refuse the help I sought to cover some of the cost of groceries. That person was desperately poor, and I can only imagine the exhaustion and hopelessness they lived with. I should … what, be like that?

Perhaps people with views like Cebra’s need to convince themselves those folks survived on their own, and perhaps telling someone like me that those other people did it without help, and it was difficult, makes them feel better about their political views. I’m sorry the people who haven’t asked for “welfare,” but who might benefit from the support, aren’t brave enough to ask for help. I’m not sorry, however, that I don’t want to spend every day struggling and wondering if I’ll have enough money for rent.

We pay our dues, in the form of taxes, for the opportunity to benefit from the services our government provides. Sometimes the benefits are quite direct, shown so clearly on the shores of New Jersey or when I buy groceries after the 10th of the month. Most of the time, we’re all living our lives on the backs of the taxpayers. We get to do that. We get to be patriotic Americans who care about the common good and promoting the general welfare of “we the people.”

Knowing people before me did it with less, and thousands are doing it now with less — including people receiving direct assistance from the government who are in much more dire straits than me — doesn’t mean I should refuse the help I need. I’m grateful for the help I get every day because I live in this country I love, where the food and water are likely to be clean and safe, where I can drive on roads with bridges not collapsing, and where I can call 911 if someone breaks into my home. I’m also grateful for the extra help I’m getting now, so I can more easily buy groceries and take care of my health.

Asking for help when I need it isn’t selfish or weak. It’s courageous and honest.

Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at heather@grantwinners.net. Her columns appear monthly.

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