Policy Wonk: LePage’s need to scape-goat is overpowering

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 0

The dictionary defines scape-goat as “a person or group bearing blame for others.”

Food-stamp recipients, those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the long-term unemployed are all familiar with Gov. Paul LePage’s need to scape-goat.

The governor’s welfare reforms would saddle these groups with stringent “needs” tests, photo IDs, drug tests, and a showing that they’ve actively sought employment last week or last month. He and his advocates justify these reforms with claims of fraud, abuse or misuse of public funds. But very few cases of actual fraud or abuse have been produced and prosecuted.

Still, individuals in these groups are continually shamed; they must wear their scarlet letters. LePage apologists assert that these reforms will make these people stronger, and break them free from dependency.

But that’s rubbish. They are scape-goats for the administration’s failure: its unwillingness to adequately fund a wide range of programs serving low-income people – school lunches, indigent legal assistance, elderly housing, drug and mental health rehabilitation, the recertification of Riverview Psychiatric Center, etc.

Recently, the governor has found new scape-goats: the homeless, immigrant populations, those who need General Assistance, and the city of Portland.

He ignores the fact that homelessness is a national problem; that many of these people are veterans suffering various post-traumatic stress disorders; others suffer from alcohol or drug addictions, and still others have a range of mental health disabilities.

With respect to immigrants, LePage ignores the fact that most are in Maine legally; that many are not permitted to work; that most have congregated in cities like Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Augusta and Bangor because those who can work can find jobs, housing, schools and social services more readily in these cities.

He ignores the fact that these cities, Portland being the lead, perform services for the whole state; Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Yarmouth and hundreds of other towns and cities are largely freed of GA burdens. Indeed, this handful of cities discharge what must be seen as statewide responsibilities.

More importantly, the governor ignores the fact that there is no easy answer to meeting the needs of the homeless, immigrant populations, and those who need GA. They cannot be bundled up and shipped to another state.

Nor can they be left to waste away and die on the streets of cities where they congregate. Their needs, like the needs of the elderly and the handicapped, must be met in some rational, humane way. As untidy as they may at times appear, these are human beings.

They should not be made scape-goats to further the governor’s agenda to reduce GA expenditures and drive the homeless and immigrants out of Maine.

LePage’s attack on Portland (led by DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew) is shameless posturing. It grows out of the discovery that a handful of people who have been housed in city shelters also have money in the bank (sometimes significant sums of money).

But the governor and Mayhew both know that the city and nonprofit shelter providers do not have the legal power, or any practical capacity, to reach these funds.

Hundreds of shelter spaces are doled out on a daily first-come, first-served basis. Demand almost always exceeds supply. The facilities are clean, cramped, and spartan; less appropriate over-flow facilities are utilized as necessary. If you’re in line today, you get a space; tomorrow is another day.

Many of the same people are served several days in a row,but each day is its own universe. There is no time to ascertain an individual’s mental health, legal competence, eligibility for GA , or outside resources.

In winter, certainly like the one we just experienced, everyone needs to be brought in off the street. When the sun sets and temperatures fall, shelter must be provided – or people die.

These are the practical circumstances of running shelter facilities that both the governor and Mayhew fully understand. For years, DHHS has acquiesced to these procedures, and to the utilization of some GA dollars to partially reimburse shelter costs.

Now, in order to justify crabbed state budgets, specifically to cut GA outlays, the governor and Mayhew scape-goat Portland and a handful of homeless individuals (many of whom are mentally ill) who are repeat users of shelters and have some outside funds. It’s shameful.

If the state feels it is worthwhile to pursue these funds, it has the legal power to do so. But it is wrong to vilify Portland for following long-standing, DHHS-approved procedures, and for failing to do what it cannot do.

More importantly, the state must accept its duty to meaningfully assist in meeting Maine’s shelter needs. It must recognize that the present GA formula is fair, given the heavy load that a handful of cities bear. And it must address real incompetence: DHHS’s failure to recertify Riverview has cost Maine $30 million in federal aid over the last 18 months – far more than the $25 million the state has spent on GA in the last two years.

Sidebar Elements

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.