The People Left Behind When Only the ‘Deserving’ Poor Get Help

ORLAND, Maine—In the eyes of the state of Maine, Laurie Kane is an able-bodied adult without dependents, and thus ineligible for most forms of government support. In her own eyes, it is hard to see how she is going to find housing, work, and stability without help.

Kane is struggling to put her life back together amid a spell of homelessness that has lasted for three years. She has a severe anxiety condition, along with other health problems, and had suffered a panic attack on the day I met her. But she had not managed to sign up for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, because she cannot get a doctor to certify her as being disabled. That’s not because a doctor has evaluated her and found her to be fine, but because she’s been unable to get a doctor’s appointment. “I was denied MaineCare because I’m considered an able-bodied person,” she told me. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, you can just get free care.’ They say, ‘You can go to a clinic with a sliding-fee scale, which would be $20 a visit.’ But what if I can’t come up with $20?”

She was also struggling with the state’s newly instated requirement that recipients of food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, work for 20 hours a week or volunteer for 24 hours a month. She rarely leaves her room at the homeless shelter, she said, because it makes her so anxious. Even filling out the paperwork and sending it in to certify her shifts at a soup kitchen seemed like a lot. “I’m very worried about losing my food stamps,” she told me. With no cash income, no savings, no home, no health coverage, no car, and no treatment for her medical conditions, finding steady work seemed impossible. How would she get to a job in this depressed, rural part of the state? What about her panic attacks? If she lost her spot at the shelter, how would she get to her volunteer gig?

Kane is one of tens of thousands of Mainers affected by sweeping changes made to the state’s anti-poverty programs by the state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage. His administration has tightened eligibility for Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare, and hopes to do yet more: adding work requirements to Medicaid, removing young adults from public health coverage, and eliminating the state’s general-assistance funds for the indigent. The broad aim of these reforms is to create a safety net that provides help for the disabled, elderly, and children, but prompts able-bodied adults to help themselves. “It is this idea that all welfare should be workfare,” said Michael Hillard, an economist at the University of Southern Maine.

In implementing these changes, Maine has become a bellwether. A number of other states are copying the state’s reforms or devising similar ones of their own, with numerous states mulling attaching work, volunteering, and job-training requirements to safety-net programs… [Click here to read more]