Maine governor Paul LePage (R) finally has a smoking gun in his effort to restrict welfare programs — at least according to him. According to a much-hyped study conducted by the state department of Health and Human Services, recipients of social programs like SNAP and TANF used money from these programs at places like bars, smoke shops, and strip clubs.
But according to the Bangor Daily News, during the period the study was conducted, these questionable transactions accounted for just two-tenths of one percent of the total money spent from these programs. The small amount of misuse holds steady with the national trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, families and single parents who receive public benefits have much smaller budgets on average and spend a larger portion of their budgets on basic necessities.
LePage, however, sees any abuse of the welfare system in Maine as evidence of the need for reform. “Any amount of abuse in the system that takes away from the truly needy needs to be dealt with,” LePage’s spokeswoman told the Bangor Daily News. “We’re not uncovering anything new. There are always going to be bad actors out there. We’re simply saying, ‘We’ve got an eye on you.’”
In fact, what came to light after the study signals a larger problem with the system than LePage expected.“This information is eye-opening and indicates a larger problem than initially thought,” LePage said in a press release. “These benefits are supposed to help families, children and our most vulnerable Mainers. Instead, we have discovered welfare benefits are paying for alcohol, cigarettes and other things that hardworking taxpayers should not be footing the bill for.”
However, it’s important to note that, according to the Daily News story, “those transactions include purchases at the checkout counter and withdrawals from on-premises ATMs. The state does not track what is purchased in EBT transactions.” So it’s highly likely that a substantial number of the hinted-at “immoral” purchases were not even made.
Similar efforts to expose fraud in social programs were attempted in Florida and Utah. Both states began drug-testing their welfare recipients to weed out drug users. There were similar results: Utah, for example, spent $25,000 to drug-test 4,730 recipients, only 12 tested positive for drugs.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, LePage is convinced there is a problem with welfare fraud in his state. The answer to this problem? Limits and restrictions to social programs like TANF and SNAP.
First, LePage would back legislation that reforms the lack of paper trail on where welfare money is spent. It’s a measure that Maine Democrats would also support, according to the Democratic House Speaker. “No one wants to see funds meant for struggling families abused,” House Speaker Mark Eves said Tuesday. “State law already forbids EBT cards from being used at liquor stores. If this list is verified, it’s time to take action. The question for the governor is, will he prosecute or politicize it? Democrats will continue to support good-faith efforts at cracking down on fraud and abuse.”
The question of whether this is a good-faith effort to stop fraud, or a political tactic to further a conservative cause, is an important one. LePage’s record on welfare reform doesn’t suggest that his intentions are sincere. In fact, LePage has been encouraging cuts to government aid throughout his term as governor. In 2012, for example, LePage said at a Republican convention: “Maine’s welfare program is cannibalizing the rest of state government. To all you able-bodied people out there: Get off the couch and get yourself a job.”
Previously, LePage instituted a five-year cap on TANF benefits, a move Democrats argue ended benefits for thousands of poor Maine residents. Just last week, Governor LePage also introduced a bill that would increase Maine’s work requirements for welfare recipients, another reform Democrats opposed.
Thus, it’s not hard to conclude that this push to investigate welfare recipients is another partisan move by a notoriously vindictive governor.
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