A Fence For the “Welfare Cliff” and a Fence for Dignity

As I ranted in my post last week, I am in a constant state of discontent when it comes to what is or isn’t welfare reform. The public discourse around the subject doesn’t soothe me much either. People want to talk about grocery receipts when I am thinking about children going to bed hungry and waking up even hungrier. I am thinking about mothers crying quietly into their pillows at night because the endless desperation of never having enough can just break a person down.

I am thinking, who let Howie Carr be in charge of the conversation?

And no, I am not including a link to any of the articles available on the grocery receipt debacle—enough exacerbating stigma and trampling basic dignity. If you are one of the few who missed the hullaballoo, consider yourself lucky. Consider yourself luckier still, if you don’t have to whip out an EBT card to pay for your groceries in the wake of the story.

I will, however, include a link to an article on the possible consensus regarding easing the “welfare cliff.” Both Governor LePage and Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, have proposed legislation that would delay and/or tier the loss of benefits as incomes increase. Solving the welfare cliff problem, unlike banning junk food, is actual welfare reform. This idea will also support a healthy economy and increase sales tax revenues.

Families working their way of out poverty need things, basic things: clothes, eye glasses, dental work, livable furniture, etc. When families have the resources to acquire these things, they pay sales tax and support businesses and their employees. When families acquire these things, the empty bellies and the soggy pillows become memories instead of daily realities.

So this “welfare cliff” thing is a big deal. I mean it’s huge that our legislature and executive branch can be nearing consensus on ANYTHING. That fact alone is worth cracking open something for a toast— just not Red Bull. Lol.

But the problem with celebrating is, addressing the “welfare cliff” is like 20 years overdue. Twenty years of hungry children and desperate parents wishing things were different. To anyone with any knowledge of how these benefits work, the necessity of this change has been painfully obvious for too long. For lack of a more accurate and respectful term, it’s a “duh.”

My children never went hungry, but I know all about crying into a pillow. I remember looking forward to getting ahead for once only to suddenly lose my benefits and quickly fall back behind. It’s embarrassing to admit things like that; I’m a pretty proud person. I’ve learned, though, that if you want to get people anywhere near the same page, you have to keep that page pretty real.

“Welfare” is just a word. Besides SNAP, TANF, and Mainecare, the larger welfare and social service system administered under DHHS involves: child and adult protective services, mental and developmental health services, child support enforcement, the court system, corrections, even education.

It’s not only hungry children and crying parents; it’s hungry, isolated senior citizens. It’s abused and neglected children and seniors. It’s special education students. It’s addicts, the mentally ill, the incarcerated, and the developmentally disabled. It’s people trying their hardest to make good choices; it’s people who, for a variety of reasons, need support around understanding and mastering choice; and it’s people in between.

What the word “welfare” represents is a complex, dynamic, multi-dimensional entity built around the idea that all human beings have dignity and that dignity deserves to be preserved and protected when someone is unable to do so for themselves. To try to reform this entity requires viewing the whole, it’s many moving pieces, and human dignity.

Good policy like “welfare cliff” policy becoming law would be a triumph for the whole, it’s many moving pieces, and human dignity. Good policy waiting years for airing is evidence of a problem in our legislative process. It is imperative our elected officials make more progress on comprehensive efforts rather than silver bullet solutions and punitive treatments for critical issues like welfare reform.

Most importantly though, it is imperative that everyone remember the inherent dignity of a hungry child or a crying parent during the debate.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.