Most Mainers agree that our welfare system is broken. Contrary to what some would lead you to believe, however, poor people are not the cause of this broken system.
Ask anyone you know who has received public assistance; the help you receive doesn’t come close to making ends meet. Life is hard when you have gotten to the place where you need to ask for help in order to put food on the table or keep a roof over your head. At Maine Equal Justice, we hear from people every day who would rather not need to ask for help but are left with no other option. The single mom who called last week may have lost her job through no fault of her own, but she still needs to feed her kids and pay the rent.
Our welfare system is supposed to help move people out of poverty and into sustainable employment. There is no question that it needs to be improved toward that end. But the welfare system can’t do this alone. We also need an economy in Maine that works for everyone so that people are able to secure good-paying jobs that allow them to provide for their families when they leave assistance.
Policymakers can take steps today to substantially improve the welfare system as well as Maine’s economy. But in order to do that, we need to take politics out of the debate. “Welfare” has become a political football that is more about scoring points than helping families find jobs and raising kids out of poverty. While politicians exploit this issue, more and more families suffer.
A clear path forward: There is a way forward that rejects the status quo while offering real solutions. There is a way in which we can begin to holdgovernment accountable for creating opportunities so that people have a real shot at making their lives better.
These policy changes would make a real difference in fighting poverty and increasing economic security:
End the practice of punishing people for working. Maine can fix the “welfare cliff” that penalizes those receiving assistance who increase their work hours or wages. A tiered approach would phase out assistance over time, helping boost them up to a decent wage.
Help parents overcome barriers to meaningful employment. Maine can create a transitional jobs program that would help parents receiving assistance prepare for work by participating in the paid labor market. This would give them the chance to earn a paycheck while they gain valuable labor market experience.
Recognize that real opportunity begins with education. Higher education is the clearest path to the middle class. Maine can build on the success of the Parents as Scholars Program making it possible for parents who are churning in and out of insecure, low-paying jobs to go back to school.
Prioritize housing stability so families can improve their children’s future prospects. Housing is the biggest expense in a family budget and without a stable place to live it’s hard to work or provide any stability for your children. On any given night more than 1,100 Maine families with children are homeless. Countless more are at risk of homelessness. Maine can invest in families with children who are at imminent risk of homelessness by providing them with a state voucher to secure a roof over their heads.
Ensure that children get the food they need to succeed. Today, 1 in every 4 Maine children (64,200) suffers from hunger threatening their future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. We can provide access to food throughout the year by taking advantage of federal programs that get food assistance directly to hungry students in an efficient and cost effective way.
Hold the government accountable for the success of Maine's anti-poverty programs by measuring outcomes. Government can establish benchmarks and goals to ensure that programs are actually working to address poverty. Data and evidence should drive policymaking, not rhetoric and politics.
These are just a few ideas; building blocks for greater opportunity and security. These ideas are within our reach. They can be accomplished with resources that are currently available. All they require is the mutual commitment to work together toward what we all believe—that every Maine person should have the opportunity to achieve their dreams and make the best life possible for themselves and their children. Now let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done together…