PORTLAND, Maine — Despite often acrimonious rhetoric in Augusta about the correct size and scope of government welfare programs, a broad majority of Mainers agree about the root causes of poverty, and how to cure it, according to a report released Thursday.
The report was spearheaded by Maine Equal Justice Partners, a legal aid and anti-poverty group, and several partners. The coalition used two mechanisms to gauge public opinion: An automated poll of likely Maine voters conducted in July by the Maine People’s Resource Center — a sister organization of the liberal Maine People’s Alliance — and a written survey of low-income Mainers created and analyzed by University of Maine sociology professor Sandra Butler.
The report, titled “ Maine People Agree,” states Mainers are more united than one might expect in their views on poverty.
According to the Maine People’s Resource Center’s poll, about 60 percent of Mainers polled said most people living in poverty are there because “their jobs don’t pay enough, they lack good health care, and education and things cost too much for them to save and move ahead,” while 32 percent said most people in poverty are there because of bad decisions and irresponsibility.
The nonscientific survey of low-income Mainers found that about 87 percent of those who offered an opinion believed the causes of poverty are beyond the individual’s control.
Majorities in both groups said that raising the minimum wage, making college and child care more affordable, expanding early childhood education and helping families access affordable housing were effective ways to combat poverty.
“The picture from these surveys is a little different than the picture you might get watching television ads,” said Frank O’Hara, author of the report. O’Hara is former speechwriter for Maine Govs. Joseph Brennan, Angus King and John Baldacci, and a principal at Planning Decisions Inc., a Hallowell-based public policy firm.
“Judging by these results, it’s time to change the conversation about poverty in Maine. It’s time to start talking about opportunities and solutions,” O’Hara said.
While the report by Maine Equal Justice Partners and its partners is largely a policy document, there are not-so-subtle nods to the political environment into which it was released.
The group makes several references to the “accusations” and “blame” cast by politicians on those who live in poverty. It’s near certainly a reference to Gov. Paul LePage, a regular foil of Maine Equal Justice Partners and its allies.
Michael Petit is a former commissioner at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and president of the nonprofit group Every Child Matters, which partnered with Maine Equal Justice Partners to produce the report. He said the goal of the report is to change the conversation policymakers are having about poverty.
The findings are “out of sync, at this point, with where our politicians are in this debate,” Petit said. “Instead of addressing the root causes of poverty, and proposing investments in making poverty go away, a lot of the language is aimed at those individuals in the greatest need.”
LePage has been roundly criticized by Maine Equal Justice Partners and other advocates for the poor for cutting thousands of people from the rolls of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and for policies such as drug-testing for welfare recipients and strict job requirements for food stamp beneficiaries. Maine Equal Justice Partners and its allies say those policies are simply excuses to stop helping people.
LePage has said those efforts are intended to end a culture of abuse and dependence he says makes it harder to help people who need assistance most. He also has embraced cooperation between DHHS and the Department of Labor in an effort to connect more welfare recipients with job search and training programs.
During his tenure as governor and in his re-election campaign, LePage has advocated aggressively to reform Maine’s public assistance programs in ways that he believes would break cycles of dependence and allow limited resources to be targeted to better serve the state’s elderly and disabled residents. His opponents have labeled those efforts as attempts to scapegoat Mainers who have no alternative but to rely on government aid.
While the report indicates Mainers are on the same page about the generalities of poverty’s causes and cures, it also stumps for specific policy proposals that have proven to be contentious in the State House.
To increase good jobs, the report states, Maine should accept the Medicaid expansion effort by the federal government — the most hotly contested proposal in Augusta over the past two years. To promote higher education, the state should invest in the Parents as Scholars program, which was targeted for cuts by LePage in 2013.
Matt Gagnon, CEO of the conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center, said that all along the political spectrum there is agreement about the problems; it’s the solutions that are tricky.
“We all know we need expanded access to jobs, health care, education,” Gagnon said. “I’d guess that most of [Maine Equal Justice Partners’] solutions would center around state programs. I think the real solution here is to shift how we think of government, and how we think about job creation in the state.
“The best solution for poverty, for instance, is a job,” he said. “Too often, though, we get into a situation where we’re trying to make poverty more comfortable, rather than trying to find solutions to elevate people out of poverty.”
O’Hara, the study’s author, said even if politicians will disagree on the specifics of how to fight poverty, they should be able to join the majority of Mainers who are looking for solutions.
“These survey results should be encouraging to them to talk about the subject,” O’Hara said. “Maine people are interested in answers and solutions, and it’s not a risky thing to talk about that. It’s almost like it’s taboo in the public sphere right now.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.