Maine’s crackdown on nonexistent fraud

March 30, 2016

Adam Marletta writes from Portland, Maine, on the ugly scapegoating of the poor being carried out by the "party of the people."

LEAVE IT to the Democrats to profoundly misread voter sentiment in an election year.

Less than a week after Bernie Sanders handily won Maine's caucuses with his calls for defending workers' rights, expanding social programs, including universal health care, and making college tuition free, how did Democrats in the state legislature respond?

By submitting two bills to clamp down on "welfare fraud" and otherwise further demonize the state's poor and economically disadvantaged.

On March 10, House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond unveiled the "Welfare That Works" initiative. The package of bills, according to a press release from the Maine Senate Democrats, would "transform the current welfare system to better address fraud [sic] and abuse [sic] and more effectively lift Mainers out of poverty."

Following on the heels of similar efforts to prevent food-stamp recipients from using their EBT cards to purchase "junk food,", the proposals outline additional items (tattoos, alcohol and lottery tickets) that will no longer be covered.

Maine state Sen. Mark Alfond (left) and House Speaker Mark Eves
Maine state Sen. Mark Alfond (left) and House Speaker Mark Eves

Plus, the Democrats want to eliminate $5 million from the state's cash assistance fund and convert "convert a portion of [the remaining] cash assistance into a housing reimbursement paid directly to landlords."

Just what cities like Portland needs: More giveaways to landlords at a time when the housing market is the tightest, most overpriced in recent history.

Throughout the press release, Alfond and Eves lecture welfare recipients on the importance of "education" and "job training," so they can "get back to work." "The truth is," said Alfond, "welfare isn't working for Maine taxpayers, and it's not working for those Mainers trying to pull themselves out of poverty."

But contrary to the business community's claims, working people in Maine and throughout the nation don't suffer from a lack of education and skills. They suffer from a lack of jobs that pay a living wage. They suffer from a business climate that doesn't have the patience to train new hires. And Mainers with physical or mental disabilities suffer from a lack of compassionate employers willing to give them an honest chance.

Where are the bills to address these real concerns?

Then again, what more should we expect from the world's "second-most enthusiastic capitalist party," in the words of author Kevin Phillips?

Socialist Worker readers need only recall that during the protracted 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations, President Barack Obama offered up cuts in Social Security and Medicare--the widely popular government programs that are the centerpiece of New Deal liberalism. Even so, the editors of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram endorsed Hillary Clinton for president on the grounds, in part, that she is "best suited to fight to preserve social programs."

BUT HERE is the real problem with this legislation: It is completely unnecessary. Why? Because there is no welfare fraud.

Or at least not enough to justify further demonization of the poor. "Welfare fraud," like "voter fraud," is a phantom menace perpetrated by congressional elites to justify draconian--and often racist--curbs on social spending and democratic rights, to name a few.

The idea that welfare recipients intentionally "game the system" so they can stay at home all day and enjoy luxury cars and iPhones has been thoroughly debunked by numerous studies.

But that hasn't stopped political leaders from spouting the same lies. During his first term, Republican Gov. Paul LePage embarked on a similar witch hunt to weed out allegedly systematic and pervasive abuses of welfare benefits. But his $700,000-a-year, taxpayer-funded investigation has, to date, turned up a mere 45 instances of (possible) welfare fraud. In other words, the governor cost taxpayers far more money desperately searching for evidence of welfare fraud than the handful of recipients who may have actually engaged in fraud got away with.

If the state government is so hell-bent on weeding out waste, fraud and abuse in the welfare system, it should look not to individual recipients, but the true "welfare queens" in every state in the countries: Corporations.

The money devoted to corporate welfare--in the form of bailouts, government subsidies, TIFs, tax-breaks, handouts and other quasi-legal loopholes--dwarfs anything the poor receive. In 2012 alone, government spending on corporate subsidies increased to $205 billion, according to independent journalist C. Robert Gibson.

As consumer-advocate and four-time independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader observed in a still-relevant 1996 article, "[B]y any yardstick, there is far more crime, and far more violence, and far more welfare the corporate world than in the impoverished street arena."

Yet the media and politicians are virtually silent on the topic of corporate welfare. The issue, to my knowledge, hasn't been raised once as a question in any of the so-called candidate "debates" for either party--not surprising, since these events are sponsored by the very corporate networks that also benefit from government giveaways.

Public opinion pollsters don't even broach the topic of corporate welfare, though they frequently ask respondents about their attitudes toward traditional welfare programs.

"Corporate welfare has never been viewed as debilitating," Nader writes. "Nobody talks about imposing workfare requirements on corporate welfare recipients or putting them on a program of 'two years and you're out.' Nobody talks about aid to dependent corporations. It's all talked about in terms of 'incentives.'"

I asked Speaker Eves' communication director Lindsay Crete about the Democrats' refusal to tackle corporate welfare and why these bills are even necessary given the absence of significant levels of fraud, and she wouldn't comment for the record. Still, that's more than I got from Sen. Alfond's office, which did not return calls.

AND EVEN if some welfare recipients are using their benefits to purchase alcohol and lottery what? Can anybody honestly blame people for seeking some escape?

Life for the working class under capitalism is hellish enough as it is. We are still contending with the worst job-market in recent history. Getting a job in post-Great Recession America has almost everything to do with who you know and how "likeable" you are. Your experience, qualifications and education are basically an afterthought in many cases.

And so few of the jobs that have been created in recent years--most of them in retail, health care and service labor--pay a living wage.

Yet the ruling ideology insists that workers who fail to "make it" under capitalism are lazy and unmotivated, or suffer some other form of personal deficiency. No wonder so many capable, intelligent, skilled workers become depressed and resort to outlets like gambling, alcohol and heroin.

As the poet Milton wrote, "Now with an inhuman cruelty, they who have put out the people's eyes reproach them of their blindness."

Let's just call this what it is: Class warfare. And as billionaire investor Warren Buffett conceded, "My class is winning."

"We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful," Rolling Stone investigative reporter Matt Taibbi wrote in his excellent book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, "and we're building a bureaucracy to match those feelings."

As Taibbi continues:

Buried in our hatred of the dependent, in Mitt Romney's lambasting of the 47 percent, in the water carrier's contempt for the water drinker, is a huge national psychological imperative. Many of our national controversies are on some level debates about just exactly how much we should put up with from the "nonproducing" citizenry. Even the George Zimmerman trial devolved into a kind of national discussion over whether Trayvon Martin was the kind of person who had the right to walk down the street unmolested, or whether he was a member of a nuisance class, a few pegs down on that sliding scale of rights, who should have submitted to...well, whatever it was that happened.

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