Welfare fraud is not the problem, poverty is

Some policymakers act as if they would like to make the poor disappear, as if by magic.

Gov. LePage’s budget has many versions of the trick, including a plan to cap state support for General Assistance programs, apparently under the belief that if there were less money to meet people’s needs, there would be fewer needy people.

Lewiston officials have their own trick for making them vanish: acting as if they’re just pretending to be poor.

With much hoopla, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald held a news conference Tuesday to announce that city officials had reviewed all applications for General Assistance over a six-week period and, as a result, had cut off aid to 84 recipients. Four have been charged with criminal fraud, and as many as 46 others could be charged, the mayor said. In addition, 34 others had their benefits suspended after it was found that they did not complete obligations such as looking for work or undergoing job training.

Macdonald promised more announcements, suggesting that the city would cut its welfare bills by cutting off the people who don’t deserve help. "We’re not going to be overrun by these types of people," he declared.

The city is right to scrutinize these records and take away benefits from the people who don’t deserve them, but it is magical thinking to think that we can wish away the real need that drives people to seek General Assistance. This is the last-resort aid that a family can access when it has nowhere else to turn. It’s a helping hand for people who have hit bottom, not a way of life. In a few cases, it can come in the form of cash assistance, but it’s most commonly a housing voucher to hold off a likely eviction, thus keeping a family off the streets.

According to Portland’s Human Services Department, nearly three-quarters of the 4,000 individuals who apply for GA in Maine’s biggest city need it for six months or less. Last year, the city paid first month’s rent for 153 homeless families and 493 homeless individuals, who were able to move out of shelter care and get back on their feet. It helped 225 people find jobs.

Policymakers can try to make poverty disappear, or they can try to address its real causes. We are in the fifth year of an agonizingly slow recovery from a financial collapse. The stock market is back, corporate profits are back, but people at the bottom of the economy are still hurting.

There is no magic trick to turn this around for them. People need a place to live, enough to eat and a job. That requires not only hard work on their part, but also support from the community that keeps them from falling so far they can’t recover.

The Legislature is right to be looking at ways that the program can be improved, but no one should be fooled into thinking they can just make it disappear.