To carry out its aggressive efforts to shrink Maine’s welfare rolls, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has turned to a Florida-based group that also has strong roots in Maine. The Foundation for Government Accountability is now working to replicate the Maine experience nationwide, with help from a Republican-controlled Congress and President-elect Donald Trump.
The Foundation for Government Accountability has helped push time limits on Mainers receiving cash benefits and reinstate a work requirement for those receiving food assistance. It also has helped defeat multiple attempts to expand Medicaid health coverage for low-income residents.
Now, Tarren Bragdon, president of the Foundation for Government Accountability, is confident that policies enacted in Maine and other states can help convince the new guard in Washington to enact bold welfare changes at the federal level that could affect millions of Americans. He said his organization has already met directly with Republican leaders in Congress, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“We’re eager to work with the Trump administration, as well as leadership in Congress, to implement those reforms. And our sense is that’s going to be a priority in the first 100 days,” Bragdon said.
Bragdon’s Beltway connections are relatively new, but his Maine roots run deep. He grew up here, was elected to the Maine Legislature in 1996 at age 21 and later headed the Maine Heritage Policy Center, another conservative advocacy group that heavily influenced Republicans’ tax, health care and welfare policy. That platform is credited with strengthening Republican ranks at the State House.
Bragdon later joined LePage’s transition team after the governor won election in 2010. He advised LePage on cabinet nominations, including the governor’s eventual pick for health commissioner, Mary Mayhew.
“We need to focus on how do we support individuals, but not create programs that fundamentally discourage work,” Mayhew said.
Mayhew hopes the new power dynamic in Congress will lead to what she calls disruptive change to break what she sees as a powerful dependence on public assistance. It’s not a new theme for Republicans.
“Welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. And we must escape the spider’s web of dependency,” said Ronald Reagan in his 1986 State of the Union Address, quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mayhew also quoted Roosevelt in a panel discussion hosted by the conservative D.C.-based think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
“To administer our relief in this way, is to administer a narcotic,” she said.
Also on that panel was Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who also was an early adopter of the Foundation for Government Accountability’s 36-state effort to dramatically change welfare.
The Foundation for Government Accountability’s reach has coincided with a spike in donations. When Bragdon started the organization in 2011, it reported just over $730,000 in revenue. According to most recent IRS filings, receipts jumped to over $4 million in 2014.
The foundation, like other nonprofits, doesn’t have to disclose its donors. But it touts governors such as LePage and Brownback as backers.
Brownback used the panel discussion to quote another prominent Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the assistant labor secretary in a Lyndon Johnson administration that gave birth to the welfare programs Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps.
“It cannot too often be said that the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it, but what it costs those who receive it,” Brownback said.
This is a core message for the Foundation for Government Accountability, and for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who just happens to be a former staffer for Brownback when he was a U.S. senator.
“The problem with our welfare system today is that it’s basically a work replacement system. It’s a system that discourages work. It’s a system that penalizes work. As a result, people don’t work,” Ryan said in a video promoting his “Better Way” anti-poverty plan.
“I don’t think anybody aspires to be a SNAP participant. I think people are looking for good-paying jobs that will help them meet their basic needs,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance at the D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group on the front lines countering Ryan’s welfare agenda.
Dean’s organization is worried the GOP-controlled Congress and Trump administration will push austere cuts to the safety net and slash funding for food stamps, Medicaid and other programs. But Congress, she said, could temper the changes. She notes that the tone of the rhetoric in Washington is different than that what she’s observed in Maine.
“It does not blame individuals in poverty. It suggests that we can help folks break the cycle of poverty, which is a laudable goal,” Dean said.
And Democratic state Rep. Drew Gattine said those looking to Maine as a leader in reform should scrutinize the results.
“Cutting the programs, without doing the things on the other end that make them work better, is simply cutting the program. It’s not reform. It’s not contributing to the goals of the program. And again, to me, it’s just rhetoric,” he said.
Gattine is a member of the Health and Human Services Committee that vetted many of the LePage administration’s welfare proposals. He said the changes have made it harder for needy people to get assistance or just kicked them off altogether.
The state reported an 11 percent drop in SNAP recipients between 2014 and 2015 after it r einstated the work requirement for adults who aren’t disabled or raising children. And Gattine said state poverty data do not support the administration’s assertion that leaving welfare has brought economic prosperity to former recipients.
At 13.4 percent, Maine has the 22nd lowest poverty rate in the country. That’s down from 2012, 2013 and 2014, but still higher than it was in 2010 before LePage came into office.
“What we’re seeing is these programs being shrunk, being made more difficult to access,” Gattine said. “And we’re seeing poverty go up, we’re seeing hunger go up, and we’re seeing fewer people with health insurance. So, you know, from my perspective, this has been a big failure.”
Gattine describes the efforts by Mayhew and LePage as politically expedient but punitive. Still, he acknowledges that the welfare debate has been challenging for Democrats.
LePage and legislative Republicans have made the issue central to their electoral efforts, and they have been rewarded. It’s unclear whether Ryan or Trump can replicate Maine’s policy or political outcomes.
But Bragdon thinks big changes are coming to welfare in Maine and elsewhere.
“I think with a Trump administration you have folks at the state level preparing brand new wish lists of what they would like to be able to do — and I suspect they’ll get almost everything on their wish list and in short order,” he said.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.