Too many people trapped on welfare

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Please let me clarify something: I believe that a pivotal role of state government is to develop an economic climate that welcomes good, private-sector jobs so people can take care of themselves. Right now, we have too many people in Maine government who believe their role is to maintain people in poverty.

This is a clear difference of philosophy between me and Douglas Rooks, who challenged this position in a very emotional column in the Sun Journal (May 23).

Maine is quite generous with public assistance and we have no time limits on the benefits (as encouraged in the 1996 Clinton Welfare Reforms). As a result, we lead the nation in Medicaid enrollment, covering almost a quarter of our people. Maine is second-highest in food stamps and the second-highest in people receiving cash public assistance.

Maine is not a wealthy state, but we’re not the poorest either. Why does our government treat so many people this way?

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When the 2008 American Community Survey results were released last fall, showing Maine’s shocking welfare enrollment, a state Department of Health and Human Services official confirmed that when anyone enters a regional office looking for any type of assistance, they are automatically checked for 22 programs. He boasted: “Our process is so well integrated with all of the programs, once they apply, they’re screened for everything.”

We should be appalled at this attitude, because trapping so many people in state dependency robs them of their human dignity. It robs their children of the chance to grow and meet their own potential, and also it robs the rest of us of the contributions these people could be making in Maine.

Let’s be honest: nobody wants to be on welfare, and they certainly don’t want their children to spend a lifetime on welfare either. The problem is that Maine punishes those who try to earn their way out of the welfare system.

That is why I say that the state has designed a system during the last several decades that actually maintains people in poverty.

The rules put in place by politicians in Augusta make it too easy for people in Maine to get hooked on a wide assortment of welfare programs — and too hard to get off. In addition to the budget-breaking costs, other unintended consequences of our soaring welfare enrollment include a high tax burden, higher DHHS administrative costs, and a more difficult path for hardworking people who genuinely want to work their way out of welfare.

For example, one troublesome part of Maine’s private-sector economy is that there are so many part-time jobs without benefits, but these positions meet a demand created by the state’s welfare system. As strange as it sounds, too many good workers in Maine actually turn down extra hours or even refuse pay increases because they are earning the maximum amount the state will allow before punishing their success by dropping all of their welfare benefits. Yes, this is crazy.

I recruit companies to Maine for a living and had one business that wanted to move here and needed to hire about 300 people in full-time jobs, with benefits, paying $35,000 to $40,000 a year. At the last minute, they decided against Maine after their human resources director determined they would have a hard time filling these jobs. When I asked why, he answered: “We can’t compete with your welfare system.” This is the last thing a potential employer should have to worry about.

Maine has an obligation to take care of people who are unable to care for themselves. I am on the board of a low-income senior citizens’ residence with many people dependent on Medicaid, and there’s no better example of a population that needs and deserves our help.

The outdated welfare rules should be reformed and people should be encouraged to support themselves. The success of the welfare system should be measured by the number of people who no longer need help. Instead of a long-term safety net, Maine’s welfare system should resemble a “catch and release” process, where people can get the temporary help they need, some job training, and career guidance that will put them in the position to support themselves and their families.

Yes, our current system is too expensive, and we need to reduce the cost. However, we should be outraged that our current leaders have developed a system that has trapped almost 250,000 Maine people in poverty and robs their children of their futures.

Matt Jacobson is the president and chief executive officer of Maine & Company. He is also a Republican candidate for governor.

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