Rachel Lowe: Real challenge facing Maine people is poverty

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.

Rachel Lowe

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Comments

Linda Sherwood's picture

Well said!

Rachel, you so accurately have presented what many people do not take time to consider as they continue to pass on inaccurate information and rumors as fact about "welfare" recipients. As one who has been through the system, I have been sadly disappointed at the turnover rates of caseworkers who never have time to get to know the clients and their needs. The workers who meet with clients simply stare at their computer screen, plug in figures, and make sure the client receives a check or what is allowable for a food stamp allotment. NEVER, had I met a caseworker who gave me any kind of kudos for hurdles and challenges I had overcome. When I finally recently completed my bachelor's degree (in order to get OUT of the system by qualifying for employment), even when showing the ASPIRE worker my final transcripts showing that I had graduated "cum laude", he continued to look at his computer screen and type away without saying a word! I am a single mother who has raised five children (and yes folks, it was with the same father whom I had been married to), so to me, this was quite an accomplishment. That said, Rachel, I would love to work with you on welfare reform and hear about legislation that will make improvements to the system instead of witch hunting for the small number of fraudulent recipients.

GARY SAVARD's picture

There's also a good article

There's also a good article in this same edition from The NE Administrator of the USDA Food Stamp program that says fraud is an issue that they are constantly working on, while trying to stay on top of all the new angles perpetrators come up with to game the system. So, is fraud an issue, or not? The USDA administers the program, so if they say fraud is an issue, I guess I will go along with that.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Gary the article you speak of

Gary the article you speak of deals a lot with stores that are committing fraud. The way people treat those receiving assistance is like they are stupid, fat, and lazy when that is not the case.

GARY SAVARD's picture

Tina, stores don't get cards,

Tina, stores don't get cards, individuals do. For a store to commit fraud, I would assume they need people that get the cards to launder them through their accounts for some type of financial gain. Targetting a store makes sense, because there may be several card recipients at that one outlet involved in fraud. Why are people so afraid of admitting that fraud is a problem in the welfare system, anyway? Fraud is a problem nowadays in every program and financial system known to man.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Gary, stores can commit fraud

Gary, stores can commit fraud without the people who use the cards. The article you refer to specifically specified stores.... "more than 225 stores found violating program rules, and permanently disqualified more than 350 stores for trafficking SNAP benefits." The fraud comes when they turn in their request for repayment from the food stamp program. No one is saying fraud is not a problem. What we are saying is it is not as rampant as the histrionics lead everyone to believe. It only takes a few to make all look bad and the judgement of some have led to people being over zealous in the accusations.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Thank you Rachel for pointing

Thank you Rachel for pointing out what many of us feel. I just wish more would see the big picture and not just the bushel of apples that make the rest of us look bad.

Betty Davies's picture

Thank you for an excellent article!

Well-said and accurate. This is the sort of information that needs to be brought to the public's attention far more than it is.

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