The Sun Journal recently reported (Oct. 27) and also editorialized (Oct. 29) on a recent study showing that Maine ranks 41st in the nation for the cost of its welfare benefits per recipient. The editorial touted the study as a refutation of Maine’s welfare-state reputation.

Not so fast.

The cost of Maine’s welfare benefits per recipient is relative. The states that rank lowest are low cost-of-living, low-GDP states such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho and Mississippi, while the states that dole out the most generous benefit levels per welfare recipient are wealthy states with the highest costs of living, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Hawaii.

Maine may rank 41st for the value of benefits per recipient, but Maine also ranks 42nd in GDP per capita. Any given welfare recipient is going to need more to get by in Massachusetts than in Maine.

The ranking also doesn’t include the cost of housing assistance in Maine, nor does it include the cost of General Assistance, which has ballooned in cost by 169 percent since 2003. With housing included, Maine’s rank jumps from 41st to 25th.

The figures people should be looking at if they are really concerned about welfare dependency include how many people are dependent on welfare, how easy it is to obtain, and the measures that are in place to prevent abuse and increase accountability.

In Maine, welfare enrollment is through the roof. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine ranks third for TANF cash welfare, sixth for food stamps, and a whopping second in the nation for welfare spending as a percentage of overall state spending. Maine’s food stamp error rate ranks second and the medical welfare enrollment ranks third.

The need for all this welfare is questionable, considering Maine’s poverty rate is actually below the national average. In fact, even though the poverty rate has remained constant during the past two decades, Maine’s inflation-adjusted welfare spending has nearly doubled.

Those are the numbers that need to change, and that can be done two different ways.

First, Maine must do things differently on the economic front than has been for the past 30 to 40 years so that more people have good jobs. State officials must implement more of the tax, regulatory, energy and right-to-work reforms that are seeing so much success throughout the rest of the country. Welfare spending must be reined in if there is to be a balanced budget and sound credit.

Gov. Paul LePage and Republican state lawmakers, while in the majority briefly in 2011-2012, began to put the state on that path. However, there is still a long way to go and liberal politicians want to stop reform, restore the status quo, and bring back the failed, big-government policies of the past several decades.

Second, reducing welfare dependency in Maine is going to require reforms that discourage fraud and abuse and redesign the system so that it helps the smaller number of truly needy folks — the elderly, severely disabled and children — instead of casting a wide net that covers thousands of able-bodied young adults.

Gov. LePage and Republicans have made some progress there as well. Maine finally became the 44th state to put a five-year cap on previously unlimited, lifetime cash welfare benefits. We tightened the penalties for fraud, trimmed spending in the medical welfare program, and enacted drug testing for drug convicts and residency requirements.

Right now, Republicans are trying to make Maine the 20th state to require job-ready cash welfare applicants to look for a job before looking for welfare. Democrats came out in opposition to that common sense measure the day we proposed it. This leaves us wondering, is there any welfare reform Democratic politicians will support?

We hope there is, because many working Mainers feel taken advantage of when they see how many people are abusing the welfare benefits they pay for out of every hard-earned paycheck.

Instead of pointing to one very narrow study in an attempt to gloss over decades of bad policy, the public should focus on how the Legislature can keep Maine on a path of prosperity and opportunity. Heavy spending on big government programs has been tried. It left Maine as one of the most welfare-dependent states in the nation. It hasn’t worked.

Liberal politicians in Maine declared war on poverty years ago and they lost.

It is time for a new approach for the long term. Together, with a little political will and the boldness to try something new, the Legislature can help every Mainer thrive.

Rep. Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, is the assistant Republican leader in the Maine House of Representatives.

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