Too many people in Maine are poor. Too many depend on food pantries and soup kitchens. They are one illness or bad break away from being jobless or homeless. They can’t see a doctor when they need one.

The problem is getting worse, even as the economy slowly recovers. Wealth is concentrated at the top, while more and more people are at the edge of poverty.

Instead of attacking the root causes of poverty, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald has captured headlines and imagination with his “welfare crackdown.”

It will probably be weeks, maybe months or years, before we have the full story about how many people in Lewiston will actually be charged with crimes related to anti-poverty programs. So far the numbers haven’t matched the drama.

And the drama feeds stereotypes and rhetoric that too easily pit low-income families, who often have jobs but don’t make enough money to cover the basics, against others who are better off, but only barely so.

This false conflict between the very poor and the nearly poor distracts us from the real challenges of building a just and productive society where we all have an opportunity to improve our lives.

Many of us are troubled by the state of our economy, and the insecurity we feel about our own livelihoods. This makes the notion of widespread welfare fraud insidiously appealing, tempting us to blame our economic unease on a waste of public funds.

The truth, however, is that our economic insecurity isn’t the result of thievery by the poorest among us. Nearly every dollar we spend to fight poverty goes to provide the very basics of life to folks who are living on the edge, no matter how hard they try.

For every person who didn’t follow the rules and ought to pay the consequences, there is a vast number who piece together an existence without many of the things the rest of us take for granted: enough food, a secure place to live, fuel to cook with and keep warm, transportation to get to work, family support, decent clothes for that job interview, health care when it’s needed.

In its editorial applauding the mayor’s actions, the Sun Journal wrote: “As government has grown over the years and programs proliferated, more taxpayers have begun to suspect the programs are out of control and often benefit the wrong people.”

But that’s not exactly what has happened.

It wasn’t program growth that caused the changing attitude, it was an orchestrated political strategy meant to divide people, undermine trust in public institutions, and discourage policies that support shared prosperity. That strategy has used stereotypes and myths to divert our attention from the real challenges facing Maine people. One in eight Mainers — one in five children — lives in poverty. For a family of three — a mother and two kids — that means getting by on $19,000 a year.

It is all too easy to divide people into “us” versus “them,” into “taxpayer” versus “cheat.” But the lines are not nearly as clear as the headlines suggest.

Most people are honest and follow the rules, including most of the people who receive General Assistance, Food Supplement, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and MaineCare. Some of them make mistakes, and a few break the rules. Those rules must be enforced, fairly and vigorously, but we must not treat the many who are honest and truly need help as if they too are offenders.

The biggest problem today with General Assistance and other similar programs isn’t fraud, it’s that too many people are poor, and that decades of attacks, reduced funding and a lack of attention to widening gaps in income and stagnating wages have left us with too few tools to respond.

Those are the problems that deserve our sustained attention to achieve a long term solution: a society in which more of us make enough to cover our basic needs, and all of us have an opportunity to get ahead.

Charles Dingman is the president of the board of directors for Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid organization that represents low-income Mainers.

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