By identifying panhandlers who apply for general assistance benefits, the city of Bangor is helping to maintain the integrity of the relief program for those who need it.
People should not want general assistance. It is immediate aid for those who are unable to provide basic necessities for themselves or their families. It is not intended to be a categorical welfare program, as the aid is for specific needs during a limited period of time. General assistance is the last resort.
So when people seeking the aid do not disclose their full income; lie about looking for work when they aren’t; fail to perform their required “workfare,” which places general assistance recipients with work with the city or a nonprofit to help them gain skills; or fail to disclose other people living in their residence, they add fuel to the arguments of those who demonize the poor. They erode the public’s confidence in the program, which has kept thousands of Maine people off the streets and clothed and fed them when no one else could.
Fortunately, the city now has one more tool to better gauge people’s actual income levels when they apply for general assistance. Police and shelter officials began this month to pass along the names of known panhandlers to city staff who administer general assistance. Already one person has been removed from general assistance for 120 days after failing to reveal income acquired from panhandling.
Sharing names is a small administrative change, but it has some clear benefits: It may prevent ineligible people from applying in the first place, and it creates a way to catch people who are using the system. People who panhandle aren’t prohibited from applying for general assistance. They just have to disclose the income collected because it determines the level of aid for which they’re eligible.
There are other small ways to improve the administration of general assistance statewide, such as giving general assistance administrators in municipalities access to the state’s electronic database to determine eligibility instead of requiring them to call.
And there are larger ways to help improve the program. General assistance is overwhelmingly used for housing needs, even though the program is designed to address short-term, immediate problems. Maine isn’t alone in needing more affordable housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates 12 million households pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes on housing; anyone who pays more than 30 percent is considered “cost burdened” and may have trouble affording necessities such as food and medical care.
In an ideal world, general assistance would not exist. People would be able to find affordable housing. They would find jobs quickly. They would make all the right choices. But until that time, Maine people need a safety net — one that operates efficiently and transparently. We hope identifying panhandlers will strengthen the accountability structure within general assistance and help preserve it for those who see it as a lifeline.