How do you end poverty? By healing Maine’s giant sucking chest wound

In a BDN column on Monday, David Farmer attacked the LePage administration and the Department of Health and Human Services because they have “kicked thousands of people off of food assistance, maintained a steady attack on General Assistance, and undermined successful programs that provide training and education for TANF parents so that they have the skills to re-enter the workforce.”

To Farmer, and liberals in general, poverty is a problem (which it absolutely is), and the solution is managing it through government assistance.

Farmer highlights a number of statistics showing how many children live “in poverty” and how LePage’s policies have somehow made more poor people.

It begs the question, though, are families that live in poverty rescued from that poverty by state assistance? Is poverty ended and economic prosperity generated by additional welfare programs? Are we reducing the number of poor people?

The answer is a rather unequivocal no to all. State assistance programs do not end poverty. They do not solve poverty.

They simply manage it. They attempt to take away the hard edge of being poor. But the poor are still poor. They are simply no longer destitute.

It has now been 52 years since President Lyndon Johnson told America, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

For 52 years we have been waging a “war” on poverty. The welfare programs that Johnson introduced in his “Great Society” program attempted to solve the problem of poverty and eradicate it. Those programs have since grown.

And what have we gotten for the more than $22 trillion investment into government programs intended to combat poverty? Static, unchanging levels of poverty that have hovered at the same level since the late 1960s.

The reason is that welfare simply manages poverty, it doesn’t combat it. If you are a poor person and you are on food stamps, you aren’t any less poor, you are simply aided by the government in the purchase of essential things you need to live.

And what does solve poverty? Capitalism, free trade, and economic development, which are collectively responsible for freeing one billion people — read that again, one billion — from extreme poverty in the last 20 years.

The LePage welfare reform proposals that Farmer and his friends on the left decry so heavily recognize this failure, as well as the cycle of dependency it creates that actually traps good people in poverty. That’s why they have instituted reforms such as time limit caps and work or volunteer requirements.

The goal of this type of reformed system is to create a true safety net with welfare programs, to catch the poor person and prevent them from suffering crippling financial circumstances, but then work to redirect that person into the self-empowering world of work, where a person can begin to actually reach for economic prosperity.

And that, ultimately, is the key, and where lawmakers in Maine have truly failed the people they represent.

The reason why there are so many poor people in Maine and why wages are lower than neighboring states like New Hampshire is because the economy of this state is not producing good quality jobs.

If today, you work part time and make $17,000 and due to your economic circumstances, you are on state assistance to make sure you can afford to buy food, you are still poor, no matter what Maine attempts to do for you.

If, however, you are able to work, and begin working at a steady job that pays a decent wage, you can crawl out of poverty and join the middle class.

Metaphorically speaking, the problem of economic insecurity is a giant sucking chest wound on the body of our state. Policymakers in Augusta have been obsessed with feeding that metaphorical body painkillers, so we don’t feel the ill effects of the painful injury we have.

What they should be doing is attempting to find ways to sew it up and repair the wound.

That is a harder job, with more complicated answers that require thought, commitment and discipline, which is exactly why lawmakers typically have no interest in pursuing real solutions to our problems.

Maine needs to completely — and I do mean completely — overhaul its education system, from K-12 education all the way through higher education, to better prepare Mainers for a modern economy. Maine needs to abandon its addiction to high taxes and obtrusive regulations that destroy our business environment. We need to tackle the high cost of energy and stop obsessing over ineffective and expensive distractions.

And yes, it needs to have a smart welfare system that catches people when they fall, helps them back on their feet, then channels them into productive lives.

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.