Prosperity over poverty: The LePage priority we should all agree on

Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Paul LePage stood in front of several thousand Mainers and delivered his second inaugural address. In it, he outlined a number of priorities and policy proposals, including completely revamping the state’s education system, focusing on drugs and domestic violence, reimagining how the state deals with revenue sharing, and making Maine more competitive in its tax code.

But one message stood out to me as I sat and listened to the direction in which he planned to take the state in his second term. Prosperity over poverty.

This is an important message to be pushed by a conservative governor. Too often, those on the political right talk in technocratic, logical terms about “steamlining government” and “ending fraud and abuse” and all the bloated, inefficient spending priorities in government that lead to bad policymaking.

But rarely, if ever, is government and its mission referred to in emotional terms that tell a story about making a positive difference in the life of someone who lives on a low-wage job or state assistance.

Indeed, that is the greatest weakness of the right. Maine specifically is a poor state, and by talking about what is wrong with government, conservatives often sound like they are missing the human element.

Social welfare programs, minimum wage and other state programs are not nefarious in their intentions. They were all formed from genuine, good intentions by lawmakers who saw a problem — in this case, pervasive poverty — and attempted to find a way to create a solution to it.

Helping the poor, then, became the motto of legislators and bureaucrats, and they became lost in a system where the only way (or the best way) to help the poor, was by coming up with a program and throwing money at it.

In the real world, we have found that too often, programs and priorities such as this have in fact done nothing more than make poor circumstances more comfortable, and more institutional.

People are trapped in a vicious system because a well-intentioned set of programs created perverse incentives (and disincentives) that made perpetual assistance the more attractive path to live.

But policymakers, after having set up this broken system, also ignored the underlying problems that created widespread poverty in the first place. This has had the unfortunate effect of creating more poor people, while not giving any outlet for the poor to improve their circumstances.

LePage’s message in his inaugural address was simple: we have to find ways to move the state of Maine from its never-ending cycle of poverty to one of prosperity.

That, of course, sounds like a talking point invented by politicians. And indeed, the actual solutions that would make his rhetoric a reality are complex, detailed, and will take a great deal of political will to accomplish.

But at a basic level, we should all agree with the point he is making.

If Maine, for instance, were to suddenly become a magnet for businesses that paid high wages for good jobs, and also provided the mechanisms — most importantly in education and training — for Maine people to move from the low-wage positions and unemployment that so many currently find themselves in, it would make things like the minimum wage, welfare and food stamps a great deal less important.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, right now, as poor as a state as Maine is, we currently only have only 13,000 workers who are making minimum wage or less.

As the left continues to push solutions that make those low-wage jobs pay slightly more, to the detriment of the businesses that employ them and are already hanging on by a string, it ignores the solution that is far and away better for those 13,000 people and the government that represents them.

Namely, economic growth and prosperity. The availability of good jobs that pay a livable wage are the only thing that will provide a long-term solution for people in poverty.

To do that, Maine needs to make significant changes to the status quo. For four decades we have operated under the same philosophy that seeks only to manage Maine’s decline and not change the paradigm. Now is not the time to nibble at the edges.

Maine must seek ways to create a more competitive tax system. We must fundamentally change how we educate our children. We must completely reimagine our university system and connect it to the Maine economy. We must lower the cost of energy significantly. We must deal with the cost of labor in Maine. And we must work to attract jobs.

Only then will our state truly move to a state of prosperity and bury our ever increasing poverty in the past where it belongs.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.