Lewiston, Maine, has long been home to one of the nation’s more liberal colleges. It can also lay claim to having one of America’s more conservative mayors.
Mayor Robert Macdonald (R) wants the state to start publishing the names and home addresses of everyone who receives public assistance benefits in Maine. He also wants to institute a “family cap” law that would withhold additional benefits for low-income families who have more children after applying for the aid.
Every Mainer “has a right to know how its money is being spent,” Macdonald wrote in a column for the local Twin City Times announcing the proposals he is submitting to state lawmakers. But “our liberal, progressive legislators and their social-service allies have made [welfare recipients] a victimized, protected class. It’s none of your business how much of your money they get and spend. Who are you to question it? Just shut up and pay!”
Lewiston has become a landing place for Somali refugees in recent years, prompting Macdonald to declare the new residents should “leave their culture at the door” and tell them to go back to Somalia if they had a problem with that. He denies that his newest name-and-shame idea is meant to target the town’s refugee population, telling a state newspaper it is aimed instead at people who move north “to play the system.”
Macdonald’s desire to create a public poverty-offender registry is explicitly rooted in humiliation. He told the Bangor Daily News that the purpose of the list is “basically to stop these people from coming here,” adding that the state is “just getting overwhelmed here” by people who ostensibly move to Maine specifically to live on the dole.
That’s a hard allegation to substantiate — or refute — with data. But one way in which Maine certainly does attract out-of-state types with the lure of free money is conspicuously absent from the mayor’s column.
Macdonald did not propose a similar database to list the names and addresses of everyone who receives public assistance through mortgage interest tax deductions. That deduction primarily benefits wealthy people — more than three-quarters of the nearly $100 billion the public spends subsidizing homeownership each year through the tax code goes to people with an adjusted gross income above $100,000 — with pricey vacation homes.
Maine is the number one vacation home state in the country. One in every six homes — 16.4 percent of the state’s houses — is a seasonal or second home. It’s one of only three states to crack the double-digits in that metric. Nationwide, just 3.5 percent of all residences are recreational homes. Maine’s drawing hard at the federal faucet for people well-off enough to afford multiple houses.
Macdonald’s proposals may not find much traction, even in a state where Republicans have been pushing punitive policies for the poor for years. Shaming beneficiaries of federal assistance programs by depriving them of their privacy is illegal, according to state Rep. Drew Gattine (D), who chairs the House committee that would likely field Macdonald’s requests. “There are specific provisions in federal law that would prohibit the posting of that information,” Gattine told the Bangor Daily News.
One of the other ideas in Macdonald’s column is drawing less flak thus far, but deserves similar scrutiny. The mayor wants Maine to impose a policy known as the “family cap” for welfare systems that calculate benefit amounts based on the number of family members in the enrollee’s household.
Such caps dictate that benefit amounts do not go up as families have more children after their initial enrollment. The caps are intended to discourage low-income mothers from having more kids, but their practical impact is even nastier: As a family grows, its ability to feed and clothe its newest members shrinks. The caps exacerbate poverty without having any discernable effect on family size.
A law like this “targets the child, targets children born into deep poverty, and suggests that they should never have been born,” Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center for Law and Poverty told ThinkProgress earlier this summer. The caps remain in place in 16 states including California, where activists say they are closer than they’ve ever been to repealing the state’s cap law.