Somehow, despite the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, high rates of unemployment and an aging population, the conversation about poverty has become a debate about “welfare,” a term that has become decidedly pejorative in today’s political vocabulary.
And that debate, instead of focusing on jobs, or education or how to help families transition from poverty to economic stability, is dominated by claims of “fraud.”
It’s as if the only problem we need to solve is fraud, not poverty. One in eight Mainers — one in six children — lives in poverty. For a family of three — a mom and two kids — that means they are stretching to survive on $19,000 a year.
As families struggle to make ends meet, it is disheartening that well-organized forces have been successful in diverting attention from the real challenges facing Maine people. They are simply playing upon our own financial insecurities to trick us into focusing on the small number of people who break the rules, not the thousands who are suffering, yet continue to play by the rules. This diversion is deliberate — an effort to justify cutting anti-poverty programs that help people in tough times.
On Feb. 12, the Sun Journal ran a package of stories that quite unnecessarily helped to perpetuate this ruse. The overall tone of outrage and disgust obscured the simple truth that the article told — there is very little fraud in anti-poverty programs.
According to the story, 10 people were prosecuted last year by the state, and while the number of people accused of fraud is growing, the numbers remain small, particularly compared to the number of families receiving assistance.
Fraud, when it occurs, should be prosecuted. Abuse of the system hurts us all. It diverts resources from the people who need it most and it undermines support for important programs. It causes rational people to make policies that create unnecessary hardships for the overwhelming majority of innocent people playing by the rules.
Despite the truth these numbers tell, fraud is the boogeyman used to attack programs such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Even MaineCare, the state’s health care program, has been brought into the fray as some people try to characterize it, too, as “welfare.”
The terms fraud and “abuse” are used interchangeably. Most “abuse” is not illegal at all. Instead it is how one person judges another. For example, we’ve heard the complaint that someone, using her food stamps, bought a pre-made cake at the supermarket. Is it really poor judgment for a busy, working, single mom to buy a cake for her child’s birthday? Does she really deserve our judgment?
Interestingly, the same scrutiny doesn’t seem to apply when we talk about taxpayer-funded programs that aren’t aimed at the poor and needy. Consider the tax code, which is riddled with opportunity for “abuse.” Should the mortgage interest deduction really apply to a vacation home? Should Maine offer tax amnesty for people owing the state money? In 2009, Maine did and for those who came forward — call them cheats, abusers or the mistake prone — most of the penalty and interest was waived. The amnesty brought in $8.1 million.
The point is pretty straightforward. Just as a small percentage of people who receive assistance try to game the system, a small percent of people don’t pay their taxes.
Most people are honest — and that goes for people who receive public assistance, too.
When we focus attention on “welfare cheats,” we contribute to those well-organized forces’ strategy that seeks to demonize the poor.
Unfortunately, those forces aren’t looking to create policies that move families from poverty to greater economic security.
Let’s ignore the call to distort information, pit neighbor against neighbor, and exploit people’s economic insecurities by focusing their attention and, sadly, that of the public, on exaggerated claims of fraud and abuse. I’d rather see us work as a community to strengthen support for people in need.
Rachel Lowe lives in Auburn and is the recent past president of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a statewide, nonprofit civil legal aid organization.