It is time that we as a state start being honest about our attitudes toward safety net programs and those who use them. America has simultaneously glamorized the safety net while vilifying the poor — with disastrous results. These attitudes have led our country to believe that we must “fix” the system at the expense of the poor, violating our moral and societal responsibility to care for the most needy.
President Lyndon Johnson famously declared a war against poverty in 1964 as America began to formally track poverty, revealing that more than we had ever imagined were starving, homeless and ignored. So the U.S. decided to fund safety net programs such as Medicare, Medicaid (MaineCare in Maine), food stamps, Head Start, job training programs and affordable housing to guarantee a basic net of safety for Americans. We as a country decided we would no longer let people suffer.
Since then, Americans began to glamorize the safety net and misrepresent its true intentions, blaming it as the problem and not poverty itself. Even today, we view these programs as reasons that people refuse to work instead of being independent, as something that we wish we could use instead of working ourselves — without having a clue what life is like for families who rely on these programs.
The modern day safety net is far from glamorous; safety net programs are often difficult to access, hard to navigate and inflexible. Our efforts to make sure that no one is committing “fraud” forces the poor to spend a burdensome amount of time navigating a difficult bureaucratic system, burying those in need with paperwork and red tape, allowing no time to resolve their poverty and gain independence.
I work with women who spend an entire day, at least once a week, taking buses to and from assistance appointments and waiting for help instead of finishing their education because the system is more concerned with “theft” than independence. I work with men who dream of independence but fear making too much money working, losing their MaineCare and not being able to afford their life-saving medication because of rules that terminate anyone the moment they make $1 more than allowed. I work with families that spend all day navigating pantries and soup kitchens just trying to survive instead of finding work all because food stamps and other programs provide dramatically less than they need.
To make this system worse, we vilify anyone who dares to use these programs for any reason. Since we began the war on poverty, we transformed from a country that wanted to support people to a country that rolls our eyes and cries fraud when a single man has MaineCare or a woman uses a food stamp card at Hannaford. We demonize the poor and make them feel inferior for needing help. And when we “reform” these programs, we pit these “villains” against one another to decide who needs the assistance more: children or the elderly, disabled or immigrants, the mentally ill or the homeless.
When we fall into the trap of thinking that the safety net is glamorous and everyone is cheating the system, we fall victim to the lie that we must fix this “broken” system. The system is broken, not in favor of the poor but rather against those who want to earn independence. Individuals and families do not want to live off government assistance; they want to live independent and productive lives.
So while we as Mainers debate our safety net programs, let’s make sure our decisions are based upon more than biased attitudes and what we are told. A safety net is supposed to make sure that no one in America lives in extreme poverty. It is our moral and social contract to make sure that everyone is treated with dignity and can better their lives. It is our responsibility to ensure that attempts to reform welfare are about actual, useful reforms and are not aimed at punishing the poor and sabotaging their success in escaping poverty.
Without a safety net and without being honest about our false attitudes toward these programs and those who use them, not only do we ignore people who need help as was happening 50 years ago, we ignore our moral and societal duty to care for each other. Without a safety net and an honest look at ourselves, what happens to the poor? What happens to others, people like you or me, when we lose our jobs or insurance and can’t afford rent, food or medication? Where does that leave Maine if we destroy our safety net?
Steven Ellis of Biddeford is a member of the Maine Homeless Policy Committee.