I am a product of our welfare system. I was raised by my mom, who was a single parent. While she worked day in and day out to provide for us both, the cost of child care, housing and food was too great. For a temporary amount of time, she needed some assistance. She needed a handup to move past this particular period of hardship.
We used food stamps when it was still in paper form, called food coupons. There were things we could buy with these food stamps and many things we couldn’t. The food stamps had to go to the necessities. It was the policy, but even more than the policy, we really did need each one of those stamps for our food. One of many memories that stands out was when we would go to the local grocery store to get bagel samples at the bakery counter. For that day, that bagel sample was our breakfast. It may sound silly, but it was a way to get through some of the hard days.
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I still have one of these food stamps as a constant reminder of where I’ve come from. This experience growing up probably has a lot to do with my style of politics; infusing a dose of human reality to public policy debates in Augusta.
With that said, it angers me to know that someone would purposely try and game a system that is intended to help people like it did my mother, who really did temporarily need help. To me, reforming our welfare system shouldn’t be about demonizing the poor, but protecting them – protecting the assistance that is so desperately needed by both children and parents.
Much like with other topics, I tend to see the problem and the potential solution that lies in the middle between the two ideologies; between wild generalizations on the right and simply enabling addictions on the left. I think most people also think this way – ensure the program is there for those who really need it and root out fraud and abuse of the system at the same time. I voted to support a compromise on welfare reform that actually would have helped to stop fraud on multiple levels.
By prohibiting the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF funds, for tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, gambling and bail as well as prohibiting retailers from accepting TANF funds for these products, the compromise addressed both sides of the potential misuse of public assistance funds. This would have placed reasonable expectations on businesses (like in the case for buying alcohol) and would have ensured a level of personal responsibility on the individual to get us to a place of true reform.
It’s reasonable to place limitations on the uses of public monies that are specifically intended to feed families. In the same vein, it’s also reasonable to have varying levels of repercussions if an individual fails to comply. Much like if you get caught going a few miles over the speed limit and you hopefully get a warning from the officer, this enabled a warning to be sent to the individual, spelling out the policy to avoid any future violations. If the violation of policy continues, a loss of benefits for a number of months would have been enacted. With each subsequent offense, the amount of time with a loss of benefits would have significantly increased; first a warning, then a threemonth loss of benefits, six months, etc. Those who didn’t want to compromise thought going without money for food for three or more months wasn’t strong enough. If it’s a choice between feeding yourself and your children, the choice becomes simple real quick. The compromise did this.
Whether it was the governor’s original bill or the compromise, both would have been merely first steps on reworking the system. While there is no magic bullet, the compromise was more comprehensive than the governor’s proposal and, in fact, it strengthened the accountability of public dollars in this assistance program. Sadly, only 26 Democrats, including myself and Rep. Barry Hobbins (D-Saco), voted to support it in the House. Not one Republican voted with us to ban these purchases; 119 voted against us. As I said on the House floor, I felt I was in some alternate reality where a handful of Democrats fought for welfare reform and Republicans took a political rain check. Politics won over policy. I guess it’s easier to use welfare as a tool in an election than actually step up and pass reasonable reforms supported by both sides. It did pass the Senate, however, 18 to 17 with the support of Sen. Linda Valentino (D-Buxton, Dayton, Old Orchard Beach, Saco and part of Biddeford), along party lines.
The welfare fraud prosecutor at the Office of the Attorney General prosecutes criminal cases of fraud specifically committed against any of the welfare programs administered by DHS. Anyone who would like to report fraud can call the Fraud Investigation and Recovery Unit of DHS at 287-2409.
There are more than 8,000 Maine families who rely of TANF funds for necessities, including nearly 12,000 children. While I would argue the best way out of poverty is the opportunity to afford higher education/training and a good job with a livable wage, it is critical that programs like TANF are preserved and reserved for those working class families who need it the most. We must protect the poor and protect Maine taxpayers at the same time and I believe this compromise was a way to do it.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for Saco, owner of Chenette Media LLC, and founder/president of the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement. Follow his updates at Facebook.com/JustinChenette, Twitter.com/ JustinChenette, and www.JustinChenette.com.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco