Sen. Libby wants to pull welfare from the political fray

I spent a couple hours trying to figure out what the opposite of a punch in the gut would be. You know that winded feeling that comes from somebody suddenly knocking the wind out of you?

For the life of me, I can’t find words for the exact opposite of that, but I do know that’s how I felt after something Assistant Senate Minority Leader Nathan Libby said at the end of our interview Thursday.

We were talking about Libby’s proposal, LD 1408, An Act To Establish an Independent Citizens Oversight Committee on Maine’s Welfare Programs. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee held a hearing on it and a few other bills earlier this week.

You see, as someone who has logged a fair amount of time parenting around the poverty line, I’ve had a rough time listening to the news cycle during Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. His concept of welfare reform has dominated the political discourse, and listening to all the rhetoric has felt like six years of being punched in the gut.

Over and over and over again.

And I’ve written about it over and over and over again.

There have been glimmers of hope like Rep. Drew Gattine trying to strike a centrist tone in the 127th Legislature and Sen. Tom Saviello, along with a few other Republicans, supporting the idea of MaineCare expansion under the Affordable Care Act, especially in light of the addiction epidemic.

The punches have predominated, though, and goodness knows the beating hasn’t helped my cynicism where the political realm is concerned. So I found the idea of a citizens oversight committee working with the Department of Health and Human Services utterly refreshing, even before I had a chance to speak with Libby directly.

Libby said the concept came from a larger omnibus bill introduced by Gattine in the last session, but he said “this particular component” might not have “got all the attention it deserved.”

I told Libby that I love, love, LOVED the part of the legislation that would mandate data collection regarding recipients’ economic circumstances and program outcomes. He agreed that, among other things, it was a way to “bring more transparency” to the administration.

Libby added, “With DHHS taking a week to return calls” we have to ask ourselves, “are they doing everything they can to support” citizens in need and in crisis? His “observation would be that they are not,” and believes a citizens oversight committee would help identify when and why the department isn’t successful.

The senator from Lewiston noted that the governor would point to cuts in the welfare rolls, low unemployment and median income growth gains — facts Libby concedes are true. He said, however, “looking at the data more closely, the income growth has been uneven across the state, child poverty rates have increased.”

Libby is also distressed to know that 35 percent of single-parent households are living in poverty in Maine.

I said I agreed wholeheartedly that too much policy was driven by insufficient or incomplete data. That’s why I was surprised to read the testimony of a DHHS official seeming to assert that the current department data analysis was sufficient. 

If their data analysis was so sufficient, why weren’t we hearing more concern from the department about targeting the populations so clearly left out of our economic recovery?

And that’s when Libby started to hit me with those opposite-of-punches in the gut.

He said things like “we want to have analysis” that is free from the push and pull of conservative vs. liberal. Libby used words like “bonafide independent analysis by citizens from different backgrounds” and “unbiased analysis of how effective” these programs are.

But then he said:

So many discussions default to Republicans saying cut, cut, cut and Democrats saying hold on a second … we don’t really ever have an unbiased conversation about welfare.

The statement landed like the opposite of an upper cut — an uplifting blow to my political cynicism. A party supporter acknowledging that some of the R vs. D stuff might be unhealthy for community?! While I tried to recover, I think I uttered something stupid like “whoa” and “can I quote you on that?”

Libby’s right — this proposal is a place for R’s and D’s to come together and say these issues, these outcomes are too important to stagnate endlessly in a political tug-of-war.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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