Last week in Ellsworth, Governor Paul LePage renewed his efforts to change Maine's welfare system, calling for increased restrictions on benefits for people seeking taxpayer support to get health coverage through the state's Medicaid program.

This, and a guilty plea the day before of a 26-year-old Andover woman to charges of defrauding the state of $8800 in welfare benefits, are part of LePage's much-ballyhooed move to shift people "from dependence to independence," and are in line with longstanding conservative dogma associated with reducing the number of people receiving welfare benefits. But in fact, these efforts are doing the opposite, increasing the likelihood that people will go on, and stay on, public assistance.

The guiding principle of welfare, from its creation to the present — the one basic idea that all who look at our country's complex public-assistance system can agree on — is that welfare should help people hit by unemployment, domestic violence, illness, or other misfortune (largely outside their own control) to get back on their feet and provide for themselves and their families independently. A common catchphrase is "a hand up, not a handout."

LePage does have some efforts other than fraud investigations that he says are moving toward this end. Many of his ideas find support in a 2010 report from the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center entitled "Fix the System: Freeing Maine families from welfare dependency."

Unfortunately, LePage is wrong — about the fraud, and about most of the other stuff he's trying to do to Maine's welfare system. It's a problem of conception, as much as of policy.

This renewed focus comes at a time when welfare is indeed in need of massive change. It is staggering under the load of Mainers' need, and straining Mainers' ability to provide for each other. Nearly one-third of the state's residents received some form of welfare aid in September 2011, with $40.1 million — $928 per minute — going from state coffers to needy families.

Perhaps not helped by the state's 7.5 percent unemployment rate, that number is growing. While joblessness is below the 9 percent national average, the MHPC's 2010 report found that "412 of Maine's 488 towns reporting have seen an increase in the number of people enrolled in Maine's welfare system since 2003." The MHPC also correctly observes that in 2008, Maine's state and local governments spent more on welfare benefits than on K-12 education.

While data kept — and provided to the PortlandPhoenix — by the state Department of Health and Human Services does not go back as far as 2003, it does indicate that from August 2006 to September 2011, the number of people receiving assistance from non-Medicaid programs increased from 340,974 to 400,943 — a 17.5 percent increase. (Medicaid participants are tallied separately; Maine's numbers in that program have also been increasing.)

That's a big dollar amount, and a lot of people, but when it gets into the hands of those in need, the help is pitifully tiny. "If a person got the maximum available benefit, they would still be living below the federal poverty level," says DHHS spokesman John Martins. His agency's data shows that the average benefit per person per month was just $100.05 in September 2011. Admittedly, that's up 75 percent from the $57.25 that was the per-person average in August 2006, but gas prices have jumped roughly that much in that time; food and housing costs have climbed steeply as well, while wages have dropped. In 2011, the federal poverty level in Maine is $22,350 for a family of four.

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