Terms such as “welfare,” “entitlement,” “welfare fraud,” “deserving poor,” and “able-bodied” have filled headlines, political messaging and social media for many years but never as prominently as they do today.
Our safety net has been blamed for budget deficits, economic malaise, national security issues, poor educational outcomes and high crime rates. Ironically, if you listen carefully to the debates over these safety nets, there really is more agreement than disagreement. People are increasingly seeing our economy is not working for all. They agree that in Maine and in the U.S. we need to be sure there is a safety net for those truly in need. They agree welfare should not be a way of life but instead offer a strategy and opportunity for people to move to self-sufficiency. And now, more than ever, people understand everyone needs a helping hand at times along life’s journey, whether that be from family, a friend or neighbor, or, at times, our government. To find meaningful solutions to the increasing levels of poverty faced by Maine citizens, we need to recognize these points of agreement and use them as the building blocks of real reform.
With so much attention on these issues — and so much basic agreement — writing an OpEd suggesting ways forward should be straight-forward, but it is not. Many of the simple words I need to use to convey basic ideas on these issues have been hijacked by ideologues. If I use these words, there are those who would immediately label me, dismissing anything that followed as the rantings of a left-wing liberal.
So I pledge to put aside the rhetoric and focus on the facts. I invite others involved in these discussions to do the same. This issue is too consequential to allow it to be driven by fear or distrust or preconception or misunderstanding. Too much of this discussion has been dominated by ideology and superficial understanding of the issues. The anecdotes that fuel the prevailing arguments do little to contribute to a thoughtful analysis of this very complex issue. The challenge of effectively addressing the poverty in our communities will not be met by vilifying people but instead through understanding the complexity of their lives and developing strategies that support and motivate them.
Leaving aside the rhetoric, what do we know?
Poverty among families led by people who are working full time is growing in Maine.
One in eight Maine citizens is living in poverty, including one in five Maine children.
Maine has the fifth highest rate of hunger in the nation.
Our communities and our economy are healthiest when everyone has the opportunity for a job that enables them to support their families.
There are too few jobs available today relative to the number of people who want to work. Many of the jobs that are available do not pay sufficient wages or offer sufficient hours for families to make ends meet.
The reality for too many today is that they are falling through the cracks through no fault of their own. Jobs are lost. Wages or hours are cut. People get sick or become disabled or need to care for a family member who is older or disabled. An effective safety net would help mitigate the negative effects of these shocks and prevent them from further contributing to the increasing poverty levels in the state.
When the new legislative session gets underway, our elected officials will face challenges and will be called upon to confront their differences. What they have in common is a great love for our state. Let’s hope they can put ideology aside long enough to be open to facts, to consider the complexity of the issues, the unintended consequences of actions and the trade-offs between long-term costs and short-term savings that will be tempting in our current political environment.
The importance of this issue demands the respectful challenging of ideological positions to address the critical needs of everyone in our state, from those needing help to those who are counted on to pay for that help. Livable wages, a business-friendly environment, an educated workforce, affordable and accessible health care, early childhood education,and affordable child care are all essential components of a vibrant economy and will directly impact the welfare numbers. Support for these programs and concepts must be viewed as fundamental pillars of a 21st century society and not as items on a menu we consider if we happen to have extra money.
Shawn Yardley is a former director of Health and Community Services for the city of Bangor.