LePage administration’s empty rhetoric won’t help poor kids

LePage administration’s empty rhetoric won’t help poor kids

Right-wing talking points and ideological delusion are hurting kids in Maine. While the number of children in the state who are hungry has increased, the LePage administration has hidden away $150 million in federal support intended to ease their plight.

Now there is a proposal for real reform that can reverse ominous trends using allocated federal dollars the way the law intended.

Maine is facing a serious problem that demands our immediate attention. Consider the following facts:

  • More than one in five children under the age of 5 lives in poverty in Maine.
  • Since 2011, the percentage of Maine children living in deep poverty (less than $10,000 a year for family of three) has increased at a rate eight times greater than the national average.
  • One in four Maine children lives with hunger. While nationally, hunger has gone down in recent years, it has gone up here in Maine

These children are suffering unnecessarily. Maine can help them in a meaningful and significant way. According to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, as of last summer, the LePage administration had stockpiled more than $150 million in federal funds intended to help families in poverty.

Last week, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon introduced bipartisan legislation to put these dollars to work to lift children out of poverty. The bill, aptly named LIFT (An Act To Reduce Child Poverty by Leveraging Investments in Families Today, LD 1475), is a comprehensive approach to fighting poverty that is supported by business leaders, doctors, policy experts and, most importantly, people living in poverty who are working hard to provide for their families.

LIFT would:

  • Address the most basic needs of families with children struggling with poverty like housing and heat in the winter;
  • Expand opportunity for better paying jobs through the Parents as Scholars program;
  • Break down barriers to work like the lack of affordable transportation and child care;
  • Address the “welfare cliff” that penalizes parents for working by abruptly taking all their help away when they make small financial gains;
  • Prevent the insidious impact of opioid addiction on a growing number of families; and
  • Establish benchmarks to ensure that public programs truly achieve their goals of reducing poverty.

And LIFT does this without any new tax dollars. It simply directs existing resources toward the families they were intended to help.

Despite LIFT’s focus on creating economic opportunity for low-income families and moving them toward self-sufficiency, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew opposes the legislation. She has offered the same tired welfare rhetoric as rebuttal, claiming that the program will encourage more people to use the programs and promote dependency on government.

Mayhew is wrong, and her ideological talking points ring hollow.

LIFT would create a pathway to stability so that people are able to leave poverty and public assistance behind for good.

Rochelle Fisher, a single mom who lifted her family out of poverty through higher education, testified in support of LIFT, explaining to committee members. “Make no mistake, those who secure low-wage jobs will still be receiving some kind of welfare, be it food stamps, MaineCare or both. The PaS [Parents as Scholars] program gave me a fish, while also teaching me to fish, and I am so grateful for that.”

Instead of basing her arguments on facts, Mayhew resorts to stirring resentment against the poor to justify the damage the LePage administration has done to Maine families living on the edge. No child deserves to go hungry, no matter how hard Mayhew wags her finger.

Many of the changes Mayhew has implemented in recent years have just made things worse for those in poverty, especially children.

In 2011, about half (47 percent) of poor Maine children received help from TANF. By 2015, it was less than a quarter (only 22 percent). That means 78 percent of poor children in Maine were NOT receiving the help they needed to access basic needs, nor were their parents receiving employment and training services to help them leave poverty behind.

Taking basic supports away from families without addressing the underlying barriers to employment has proven an ineffective strategy for fighting child poverty. It only makes families poorer and children hungrier.

Mayhew should be held accountable for her actions. She allowed $150 million in federal funds to sit idle while thousands of Maine children have suffered unnecessarily. It’s a shameful approach to public policy that puts ideology ahead of the needs of kids.

As a country, we intended these dollars to help children living in poverty. Instead, we see missed opportunities to help kids have a safer and more secure start to their lives.

In addition, a state audit determined that DHHS under Mayhew attempted to misspend at least $13.4 million of these federal funds. Mayhew has been moving this TANF money around behind closed doors without any input from the Legislature, stakeholders, or the public – and worse yet without a comprehensive, evidence-based plan to reduce child poverty in Maine.

Common sense tells us that people need stable housing, child care and transportation in order to get and maintain a job. We also know that education drives earnings and that parents need to be able to make ends meet in order to take care of their children. Kids can’t be expected to do well in school, let alone grow and be healthy if they’re hungry or homeless. LIFT addresses all of these common sense realities with real reform that will lift families out of poverty.

Passing LIFT means making a real investment in Maine children and their future. Now would be a good time to find your state representatives in the Maine House and Senate and call them to let them know that you support LD 1475, the bill to LIFT Maine families out of poverty.

Photo: Rochelle Fisher testifies before the Maine Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

About author

Joby Thoyalil
Joby Thoyalil 1 posts

Joby is a policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners. He holds a graduate degree from New York University’s school for public service with a specialization in public policy analysis.

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