A recent move by the Trump administration may open the door for Maine to implement work requirements for those on public assistance. Republicans, led by Gov. Paul LePage, have long sought work requirements as a pillar of welfare reform efforts. But Democrats have resisted the move, citing the diversity of circumstance of those on public assistance, including single parents and those who for one reason or another can’t work.
Public assistance is a complex concept, but one easily demagogued. The LePage administration has notoriously caricatured those on public assistance as lazy layabouts, using imagery of men lying on couches as a way to cement working-class animosity toward those receiving state aid.
But the LePage administration has also spoken strongly about their moral conviction that a job is more than just a paycheck – it’s a path to self-sufficiency and human dignity. The welfare system has been demonized as a sort of financial drug dealer, getting generations of Mainers hooked on a nonproductive lifestyle and robbing them of their self-respect.
This is powerful stuff, and I generally agree with the underlying concept. People are more free as human beings when they are less reliant on the government, and the rest of us who pay taxes are justified in wanting to ensure such chronic dependencies are reduced as much as possible.
However, though requiring those on assistance to try to find a job does not seem particularly draconian to most, the LePage administration is so aggressive in their demonization of welfare recipients that they allow a counter-argument much more validity than it deserves. Social service advocates are able to make the stronger sympathetic argument about the humanity of those facing cuts or restrictions, rather than answer the economic charges. This is classic LePage: sound reasoning doomed to failure by the ineptitude of the messenger. And it’s a major reason for the lack of consensus on anything related to welfare.
This type of partisan back-and-forth gets us nowhere. Welfare is not solely an issue of cost to taxpayers, it’s also a cultural issue that reverberates through our entire state. We are better as a state with less dependency: our economy is stronger, and our communities are stronger. But contrary to the oversimplified position of many conservatives, the negative cultural ramifications of welfare dependency do not simply disappear once aid is cut off. When someone loses public assistance but still doesn’t have a job, the needs of childcare and health care, for instance, don’t just go away.
There’s only one real way to cure welfare dependency, and that’s a job. Rather than focusing on cutting people off, we need to focus on getting people hired.
And no one hires more people in Maine than our state government.
Maine state government is our biggest employer by nearly double– more than 12,000, according to recent data. The attrition alone from this many jobs could provide a dramatic number of opportunities to pull people out of the welfare system.
What if state agencies were required to interview at least one public assistance recipient for every job opening?
Currently the state is advertising openings for a wide array of jobs, including mechanics, food service workers, office assistants, and more — ranging from entry-level to highly-skilled.
Rather than simply mandating work requirements for those on public assistance, what if the state’s largest employer became an active participant in the process by matching skill sets with existing job openings? And what if the state combined efforts with municipalities, opening up even more potential opportunities?
Imagine if the state of Maine required a resume as part of the application process for assistance, and imagine if that resume was made available to every state agency. Before hiring, state agencies would be required to search those resumes for applicable skill sets.
Instead of the Department of Health and Human Services cutting off aid to those who fail to find employment on their own, what if the Department of Labor was mandated to move people out of welfare by giving them state jobs?
Each time someone escapes welfare dependency this way, taxpayers would get a two-for-one deal: a state position filled, and one less person on public assistance.
There would certainly be hurdles to be overcome to make a system like this work, ranging from privacy issues to the cost of implementation. But if the issue here is really employment, and if both Republicans and Democrats are sincere in their belief that getting people back to work should be our goal, the overall benefit to both welfare recipients and the Maine taxpayer should be enough impetus to overcome those hurdles.
By putting the onus on the state to match welfare recipients to available jobs, rather than simply requiring recipients to find work, we could leverage the machinery of government to provide an overall good, and reduce costs to taxpayers at the same time.