With poor kids’ health at stake, LePage should trust data over ideology

I wanted to to title this post:  Again, what the heck is wrong with Maine DHHS? Because, once again, I find myself scratching my head and thinking, what the heck is wrong at Maine DHHS?

In my head I use a stronger word than heck, but the gist is the same.

This time, it’s the LePage administration’s response to a proposal from House Speaker Sara Gideon that has me furrowing my brow. Gideon wants to talk facts and data; the administration wants to talk ideology. Gideon wants to use readily available federal funds to target children living in deep poverty and their families; the administration, it seems, wants to find reasons to say no.

Gideon’s calling the proposal LIFT (An Act to Reduce Childhood Poverty by Leveraging Investments in Families Today).

To justify her proposal, Gideon cited statistics such as data showing that the percentage of children living in deep poverty in Maine has increased at eight times the national average. In an emailed statement, Gideon said:

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live or what letter you put after your name. The idea of any child experiencing the insecurity, instability, anxiety and hunger of poverty is just not acceptable.  These kids are the future of our communities and of our workforce and they deserve our attention and our support.

–Rep. Sara Gideon

Gideon’s proposal seeks to use available money from federal block grants intended for programs that support moving families out of poverty. The over $150 million Gideon and co-sponsors believe the state should be spending is specifically earmarked for that purpose but they say it is not currently being used.

Mary-Erin Casale, Gideon’s communications director, said the state confirmed in testimony at a Monday hearing on the bill that the funds are there and confirmed their purpose. Casale said a “considerable amount of time and thought” went into the proposal that identifies specific barriers inhibiting families from escaping deep poverty.

These barriers include things like housing, transportation, child care. Casale said Gideon hoped the legislation would bring a degree of transparency to the operations of the department.

Casale and I talked about how the proposal was data- and accountability-oriented. I said I liked the specific areas at the focus of the bill, but I loved that benchmarks were incorporated.  In my experience, the biggest reform that needs to happen to welfare is the development of clear data on whether or not the programs work.

Analysis of sufficient data should necessarily lead to bolstering or changing programs based on facts rather than ideology. Casale said one of the benefits of the LIFT proposal would be that the legislation would bring a degree of transparency to the operations of the department.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew seems to consider any expenditure, federal or otherwise, to be a setback for her “reforms.”

Mayhew says previous reforms have led to more people working and higher incomes, however she cites a report that looked at able-bodied adults without children. I’m not sure what that data have to do with a proposal geared toward families with children. Lifting families with children out of poverty involves a more complex set of factors than doing so for single adults.

You’d think DHHS staff would understand the difference. It makes one wonder …

The administration also believes Gideon’s proposal will lead to increased dependence on welfare programs, yet they offer no data to support this assertion. I Googled the question: do welfare programs increase dependency on them? The results support my contention that the rhetoric behind the opposition to the LIFT proposal is ideologically, rather than data-driven.

Ideology makes for interesting table conversation, but lousy policy — especially when all available data contradict the ideological conclusion. Especially when the data represents real children struggling and going hungry in real life because some grownups can’t handle real facts.


This is the first year I’ve tried to pay close attention to some of the testimony offered by Maine DHHS officials at a few legislative hearings. (Click here and Click here.) My blog is an ongoing dissertation on the ways in which I disagree with measures that the LePage administration describes as “welfare reform,” yet still I was unprepared for just how depressing a closer look at the ethos behind the policies would be.

Try as I may, I can’t interpret the testimonies, like the official DHHS prepared statement opposing the LIFT proposal, I’ve reviewed in any way except to say they read like a department determined to say no to everything intended to uplift Maine’s poor residents, even if it involves already accessible funds earmarked for vulnerable, suffering children.

The department spends so much energy finding justifications for saying no when the data I’m aware of suggests the department should be saying yes to developing and fine-tuning programs intended to lift families out of poverty. 

Now sure there are naysayers who say federal dollars are still tax dollars, which is true. But those funds have already been collected and allocated and refusing to take them will NOT balance the federal budget … talk about irrational thinking … and even if you could balance the budget by refusing to use these funds, should we balance budgets by sanctioning the suffering of children?

Welfare programs do need reforming, but that reform should look more like a reshaping than a cutting. Gideon’s proposal and Sen. Nate Libby’s proposal for citizen oversight of programs are the first steps toward a genuine reshaping — genuine reform.

Both proposals have accountability measures built into them, bringing a higher level of transparency and accountability to DHHS. Taxpayers have a right to know that the department and lawmakers are being effective stewards of their investment in their communities.

Taxpayers have a right to know the department is fully invested in providing the best possible programs designed to tackle our most dire challenges:  children compromised by poverty, people compromised by severe addictions, families and other social institutions breaking under the burden of economic and social factors beyond their control.

If my conservative friends are truly interested in reducing welfare rolls while increasing community well-being, the best way is through effective health and social service programming and an economy that provides a decent quality of life for all workers, all families.  Gideon’s LIFT proposal is a step in that direction.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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