The last Rasmussen poll results that I saw had Paul LePage and Mike Michaud in a 40-40 dead heat in the race for Maine governor. How voters feel about welfare may be the factor that breaks the tie.

Many political observers believe that LePage is beating the drum successfully with a potential gamebreaker when he bellows “get off the couch and get a job.”

Surveys indicate that the majority of Mainers may share the governor’s impatience with violators of law relating to so-called entitlements.

The governor, however, may have blown some of the traction he had established on the welfare issue, when a poorly worded news release included Social Security and Medicare in the welfare column.

A lot of damage control has been done since then. No politician can be seen as questioning Social Security or Medicare and survive voters’ wrath.

The facts about the highly divisive welfare reform issue (what isn’t divisive ?) are as follows:

• People believe that we should help those unable to help themselves, but they also believe that Maine’s reputation for being a welfare haven is deserved, and they don’t like it.

• Many people believe they know violators of the state’s fairly generous welfare programs, and, like the governor, believe that those “gaming” the system and taking advantage of benefits they do not deserve or qualify for should be nailed.

In sum, the safety net is an essential part of society, we support it, but enforcement is required to protect against abuse. Every dollar going to undeserving recipients is taking away money from those in desperate need. For some recipients, welfare benefits are the difference between a child eating or going hungry, or even a matter of survival.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House budget committee chairman, has introduced a new anti-poverty plan.

Its high points include:

• Substantially expanding the earned-income tax credit, a wage supplement for low-income workers administered through the tax code. The tax credit has lifted many families out of poverty by stimulating work effort.

• Folding 11 anti-poverty programs, including food stamps, public housing and cash welfare (TANF), into one block grant available to states that wish to operate their own aid programs for the poor. There would be a work requirement for recipients, but greater flexibility would exist in meeting the needs of individual clients for housing, drug treatment, training, etc.

• Reducing “dependence on federal handouts and launch a frontal assault on the declining work ethic and unemployment in America.”

• Offering states the opportunity to create anti-poverty programs that also would reduce regulatory barriers faced by low-income Americans who wish to establish a small enterprise of their own.

• Pairing each disadvantaged American with an individual case worker. Personalized goals (short-term and long-term) would be set out in “contracts.” This is the feature we like the most from Ryan’s proposal.

States could choose either private contractors or state agencies to provide case management. There would be third-party reviews based on success measures agreed upon by state and federal governments.

Here in Maine, as elsewhere, there is much difference of opinion on approach to welfare reform. LePage has introduced several measures in the Legislature, only to be rebuffed by Democrats, who are reluctant to give him anything in a year when the next governor will be chosen. On the other hand, the governor exacerbated the political divide himself by refusing billions in federal help now and in the future to fund Medicaid for 30,000 of Maine’s poorest residents, who have no insurance.

As a partial political offset, LePage has just come up with the money to help save several of the state’s nursing homes that are on the brink of closing.

As with most issues, the answer about welfare lies somewhere in the middle, a combination of compassion with common-sense requirements and enforcement.

The people yearn for leadership. The poor depend upon it.

Don Roberts is a former city councilor and vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta. He is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District, and a representative to the Legislative Policy Committee of Maine Municipal Association.

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