Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Rep. Alex Willette
IMAGINE, FOR A MOMENT, that your brother-in-law asks you for some money to help him get by. You're able to help, but expenses are tight for you, too.
You ask him if he's looked for a job. He says "no." So you suggest he apply for a few jobs and come back if he still needs help. Sounds reasonable, right?
That's when your sister-in-law jumps in, points her finger and yells at you, saying, "How dare you suggest he should look for a job before you give him money! You're just trying to vilify him!"
You probably would feel taken advantage of. I know I would feel as though my help is being taken for granted and that others think they're entitled to it.
Unfortunately, a situation like that is playing out right now in state government. Democratic leadership in the state Legislature is the sister-in-law, and Maine taxpayers are the hard-pressed person who's being accosted for a handout.
My colleague, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, has introduced a bill that would require able-bodied, job-ready applicants for cash welfare benefits to show that they've applied for at least three jobs before they can get taxpayer-funded assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
That's not too much to ask. In fact, 19 other states are doing it, from conservative Georgia to liberal Vermont. Most of those states have seen the number of approved welfare applications decline, which implies that either applicants are finding work thanks to the up-front job search requirement, or they aren't looking for jobs.
Liberals here in Maine reacted to Fredette's bill with disdain, saying it's a barrier to welfare.
I think most Mainers would agree that we probably could use a few more "barriers" to able-bodied people receiving welfare. Besides, it's hard to argue that an afternoon of job-hunting is an unreasonable barrier to overcome if one wants public assistance.
Nonetheless, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick said it is "vilifying poor people" to require that they look for work before getting a welfare check.
Meanwhile, online polls of Mainers and even the favorable commentary of a few left-wing radio talk show hosts indicated that the measure enjoys wide support from across the political spectrum -- just not in the majority offices of the State House.
The Lewiston Sun Journal's editorial board called the bill "reasonable" and wrote that Mainers want more accountability in welfare.
Between opposition to this bill and other bills proposed by Republicans this year to prevent welfare from being used to buy junk food, cigarettes and alcohol (you're probably thinking, "Wait, that's legal now?"), I'm left with one question: Is there any welfare reform measure that Democratic politicians would support?
They seem to think that everything's just fine with the welfare system they've built up over decades of near-monopoly rule in the state Legislature.
They're always defending the status quo, proving just how out of touch they are.
But Maine people know better. Mainers see abuse and overuse every day, and they want change.
Another bill introduced by the Republican leader would clean up some exceptions to participation in the ASPIRE-TANF work-search program. ASPIRE case workers say that the exceptions are being abused, so the bill proposes to remove them.
This bill met similar and equally immediate resistance from Democratic lawmakers.
Republicans don't want to interfere with benefits that are going to truly needy Mainers who just need a temporary helping hand and are using the system in good faith. We are committed to giving our neighbors a hand up when they need it.
But the inter-generational system of dependence, entitlement and abuse that currently defines Maine's welfare status quo must come to an end. We are committed to reforming it for a few important reasons.
First, fiscal responsibility. Maine can no longer afford to be the second-biggest welfare spender per capita in the country. Second, the principle of the matter. Mainers should know that their generosity is not being abused. Third, our economy can never move forward with a system that rewards people for sitting at home.
Dependency begets a sluggish economy, which begets more government spending and taxation. It's a vicious cycle that we must break.
As President Ronald Reagan famously said: "I believe that the best social program is a job." We must remember that helping people get a paycheck, not a welfare check, is the ultimate form of compassion.
Rep. Alex Willette of Mapleton is the assistant Republican leader in the Maine House of Representatives.