Sunday, December 8, 2013
ARE MAINERS NEEDY? Or greedy? We want to help the needy, but not the greedy, and telling the difference isn't always easy. Let's try a quiz.
The 13,338 children served by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Needy or greedy? The 800 homebound seniors who get a meal delivered each day from the Waterville Muskie Center's Meals on Wheels program. Needy or greedy?
The dozens of families who pick up food and other things every Saturday at the Mount Vernon food bank. Needy or greedy? The 7,955 people in Penobscot County receiving Social Security disability benefits. Needy or greedy?
The latter category really interests me. More than 5,000 jobs have been lost in the Millinocket region since the paper mills began downsizing and closing. Those who still had jobs often worked with many aches and pains. Once they lost those jobs and had no chance of getting others, however, some filed for and qualified for disability benefits.
Between 2000 and 2012, the number of people in Penobscot County receiving disability benefits increased from 4,475 to 7,955. Again I ask you, would you call these Mainers needy or greedy? Would you deny them benefits? When you hear that almost one in 12 adults between the ages of 18 and 64 in Penobscot County is getting disability benefits, what is your reaction? Needy? Greedy?
Gov. Paul LePage should not be criticized for stepping up investigations of fraud in the state's human services programs. State police officers are on Interstate 95 to discourage us from speeding. Game wardens are in the woods to encourage us to obey hunting laws and rules. A vigorous effort to weed cheaters out of our human services programs is an important deterrent.
The really good news so far is that very few have been found to be cheating. With more funding and staffing devoted to this, the Human Services Department increased fraud referrals to the attorney general for prosecution from 10 to 45. Prosecutions increased from eight in 2010 to 15 in 2012.
Those who use these low numbers to label the governor's effort as unnecessary miss the point. Cheaters must know that they might be caught. Compliance with hunting and fishing laws and rules is very high, but we still want wardens in the woods and on the waters to discourage poachers and to catch the few who are really bad.
I take issue with the governor and others who use the word "welfare" as a pejorative. Most of those receiving our help are needy, not greedy. The denigration of all of them, by pounding home the word "welfare," however, is unfortunate and unfair. Let's all start calling this a "helping hand." And who among us couldn't use a helping hand occasionally?
I have learned a lot about this from our son Josh, who works for a wonderful program called My Brothers Keeper in the Brockton, Mass., area. Keeper is privately funded and accepts all requests without an application process. That's right, if someone calls and says they need something, from furniture to food, Keeper delivers it, no questions asked.
Josh says cheating is almost nonexistent, and he should know, because he makes many of the deliveries, going into each person's home for the delivery and a visit.
I have helped make deliveries at Christmas and have learned that you can never make a judgment of need based on what you see in front of you.
I remember a nice home, a couple who looked fine to me, but who I learned, as we talked, were not at all well. The man had fallen from a roof while painting and was desperate to heal and get back to work. The woman was severely ill and her husband was caring for her, but this was the first time they'd asked Keeper for help.
I left that home with tears in my eyes. Needy, definitely.
Some of the great need here in Maine is driven by our less-than-generous giving as private individuals. I was shocked by an Aug. 23, 2012, report in The Chronicle of Philanthropy that Maine was dead last in one measure of charitable contributions and next to last in the other.
A typical household in Maine gave 2.8 percent of its discretionary income to charity, compared to the national average of 4.7 percent. Maine residents earning $50,000 to $100,000 donated, on average, 3.3 percent, a rate much lower than for people in other states with the same level of income.
Perhaps if we were more generous personally, we wouldn't have to be as generous publicly. For sure, we must recognize that almost all who reach out for a helping hand are deserving, honest, and yes, needy, not greedy.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or email@example.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.