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Why Welfare is Such a Convoluted System

by | Oct 13, 2021 | Life in Maine, Opinion, Spotlight, Struggle

Why is welfare such a convoluted system in Maine? Well, there’s a fitting convoluted answer: The welfare programs themselves have been designed to be difficult and dehumanizing, and the staff in charge of implementing these programs and processing applications are both overworked and underpaid. From the top down, welfare has been systematically chipped away, from administration to administration, from its inception to present day. 

Let’s go back in history a bit, first, to lay the groundwork for the present day: 

In the 60s, poverty became a focus of sociologists and political theorists across America. Their assigned goal was to analyze poverty, create a thesis around the causes, and use that information to create comprehensive programs to meet people’s needs and, ultimately, lift them out of destitution. 

Some theorists, such as Oscar Lewis, tried to show that poverty was not just an economic social condition, but a cultural one. But while Lewis attempted to paint a sympathetic view of those in poverty to create more socially informed and compassionate welfare programs, other theorists such as Daniel Moynihan, Edward Banfield, Charles Murray, and George Gilder (father of the trickle-down theory and supply-side economics) had far more racist and misogynistic theories: arguing that matriarchal family systems, single parenthood, and government programs replacing the husband in a heteronormative family system were to blame for the culture of poverty. 

Yes, you can thank George Gilder, author of “Wealth and Poverty” and worshipper of capitalism, for the snowball effect of cutting taxes for the rich, cutting funding for welfare programs across the board, and further stigmatizing the idea of welfare for the working class and poor. 

Some people, like Lawrence Mead, suggested that poor people work off their welfare checks, and proposed that welfare recipients exist in a state of indentured servitude and possible imprisonment – making non-compliance of these pay-back mandates punishable in a similar fashion to refusing to be drafted in war. We can see hints of this kind of poverty theory applied in our local General Assistance programs, where some recipients are assigned by their local towns to pay back what is given to them. Ironically, General Assistance is funded, partially, by our property taxes. 

By far, the most outwardly racist theorists were Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, who wrote The Bell Curve, which purported to be a scientific demonstration of the relationship between class, IQ, and genes. As a result, their genetic thesis implied that those in power deserved it because of their superiority, and those in the “underclass” were inferior. This type of thesis was condemned largely because of how it could possibly be utilized to justify slavery, sterilization, and genocide. These two theorists contributed to the ongoing stigma that permeates utilizing welfare programs. The shame and humiliation that some people feel when accessing welfare programs is sharpened by the sheer difficulty of accessing them. A majority of these “cultural poverty” theories attempted to make clear distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor – and argued that those in perpetual poverty, to some degree, were inherently defective, whether it be genetically, intellectually, or due to an innate character flaw. What was once considered “deserving” – widowed women with children and those disabled on the job – have now molded into the “undeserving” category, thanks to, among others, the Reagan stereotype of “welfare queens” – a strawman created solely to pull racist, white, working-class voters into his ballot box. 

Fast forward to the 1990s: The Clinton Administration, where he vowed to “end welfare as we have come to know it” and signed the Personal Responsibility Act (PRA). What exactly did the PRA do for the welfare system? Well, according to “Let Them Eat Ketchup: The Politics of Poverty and Inequality” by Sheila Collins, it severely reduced the Federal government’s role and left it largely up to individual states. 

The Personal Responsibility Act ended the entitlement status of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), where the federal government would no longer match state funding and no longer guarantee assistance if a state ran out of funds assigned to welfare programs. It also prohibited mothers under 18 from receiving grants for children born out of wedlock, as well as children that were born to families already receiving AFDC who received aid at any time before the birth of the child. A 5 year limit was also imposed on the time a family could receive welfare, regardless of their ability to find employment or not. Cash assistance was also drastically cut through the Supplemental Security Income program for children who would be eligible in the future, and those with specific disabilities stemming from substance use. It also replaced federal child welfare programs with block grants and ended assurance of foster care payments for AFDC-eligible families and payments to families that adopted children with special needs. Most forms of assistance to immigrants (documented or not) were denied. A significant amount of federal child welfare programs were cut or completely eliminated altogether. Finally, welfare-to-work programs ceased expansion and the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program was repealed. 

So, with the majority of welfare programs being left up to individual states and their allotted funds being reduced, it becomes clearer as to why welfare feels insufficient, dehumanizing, and tedious. And as budget cuts frequently target welfare programs, and wages are not adjusted for inflation, problems and complaints compound.

For example: One of the most common complaints about the Dept. of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Social Security, Mainecare Member Benefits, and Unemployment Insurance combined is their painfully long waiting periods over the phone. Sometimes, people wait on the phone only to be disconnected or told that, because of the call volume, they are no longer taking any calls for the day. Other complaints include impressions of contempt from DHHS staff or clear inexperience, possibly because of high staff turnarounds. On June 27th of this year, the Maine Service Employees Association rallied in Augusta for their wages to be raised to $15 an hour – a paltry request considering this author’s local Walmart advertises positions starting at $17 per hour. 

Low wages for state workers, some of whom have master degrees, have made it difficult to incentivize working for the state or retaining employees in those positions, let alone coming to work juggling the difficult tasks that they often face with an obligation to smile and provide emotional labor. 

Maine employees make 15% less than their counterparts in other New England states. 

State workers, especially like other workers deemed essential, have worked through the pandemic and adjusted to the increased demands for welfare applications in Maine. In addition, they’ve adjusted to remote work, and with an outdated online system that had significant controversy in local paper headlines, it seems that the deeper you dig into the various issues plaguing welfare, the issues seem to span even farther.  

Most jobs start at a little over $12 an hour, some range up to $14 an hour. Like other states, the majority of Maine state work gets contracted to non-profits and other private services, who often get paid more than the state workers who had their jobs taken off their hands. 

For the political theorists whose goals ultimately involved making welfare itself debilitating and discouraging, it seems like their influence has fully permeated state and federal administrations. For activists who have argued for streamlined services, flexible income-limits, and more informed application processes, it appears that the decades-long battle still rages on. Ultimately, in the fight to eliminate poverty, it appears that it has been sabotaged since the 1970s with attempts to suppress those struggling to make ends meet, and turning our fellow workers against each other to squabble over who is deserving and undeserving, while those in power only get richer.

Coral Howe is a member of the Pine and Roses Editorial collective.

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