Welfare opponents say that poverty is too comfortable in Maine, and people who get government assistance choose to take it easy rather than take responsibility for their lives. But nearly a quarter of all Mainers who are living below or precariously close to the poverty line will tell you that it is a suffocating and demoralizing existence. They are not choosing an easy path, they just can’t see a way out.

That’s why debate over welfare reform should be about helping people, instead of blaming them. It is a complicated set of problems with no easy solutions, but talking about the best way to bring training and job opportunities to struggling Mainers would be a good place to start.

Almost two-thirds of the state would be on board for that approach, according to a study released last week by Maine Equal Justice Partners. About 60 percent of those polled said the lack of jobs, income, health care and education were to blame for poverty, and 65 percent said the key to reforming welfare is to create more opportunities.Of course, that leaves 32 percent of the public that believe “bad decisions and irresponsible behavior” are to blame. That population is the audience for Gov. Paul LePage, who believes an overly generous welfare system has left too many people content with a life collecting government checks. People on welfare, the governor says, often spend freely on food, clothing and electronics instead of trying to pull themselves off the public dole.

A lot of voters have a positive gut reaction to the governor’s views, and it’s easy to see why. So many Mainers are living paycheck to paycheck, dealing with the rising costs of housing, food and fuel with no accompanying rise in pay, that the idea that their neighbor is gaming the system is infuriating.

And LePage is not entirely wrong. Bad personal decisions sometimes do play a role in making people poor, and some people are taking advantage of programs not meant for them.

But that is not true for most of those who ask for help. The majority of welfare recipients are on assistance for a short amount of time, because they just lost a job or suffered an illness. For them, every day is a struggle and any bad break is devastating.

Poverty has a lot more to do with increasing costs, stagnant incomes and a flaccid job market than bad judgment and a lack of personal responsibility. And the discussion about welfare has to move past why people are on government assistance to how they can get off it.

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