Conflict gets more attention than consensus, and when you have a major figure as combative as Gov. Paul LePage, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.

But there is a rare moment of near agreement between Augusta Democrats and the LePage administration that should not pass unnoticed. Both parties have proposed bills to level off the “welfare cliff”: the quick drop in government benefits that can make getting a job or a promotion bad news for families who see their public assistance disappear faster than new income can replace it.

The two sides’ approaches differ, but they have enough in common that a deal should be reached this year. It’s a real reform of the welfare system that is long overdue.

For the last four years, the administration has led an important public debate about a counterproductive welfare system that perpetuates poverty. But with all their professed dislike of the system, the governor and his allies have been far more critical of the people who receive benefits than they are of the way the programs are designed.

What the governor and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have proposed has centered mostly on cutting eligibility for classes of people who live in poverty, not making any real changes to the system itself.

The “welfare cliff” proposals are different. Instead of shaming people for needing help, or accusing them of “gaming the system,” this set of reforms recognizes that what needs to be fixed is the system — not the people who rely on it.

A mother should not have to put her young children at risk by taking a job. She should be given some time to establish herself at work, maybe get employer-supported health benefits and put a few dollars away in a savings account before the state starts withdrawing benefits. And even then, those benefits should not be yanked all at once, but phased out over time.

This is proposed in both the Democrats’ and the governor’s bills. The Democratic version also would include subsidized child care, the expense of which is a major barrier to parents getting jobs.

The bills are a step in the right direction, but they should not be the last word on real welfare reform. While the welfare cliff is real, it’s not the only problem poor families face.

There is a popular misconception that poor people don’t work — that a job cures poverty. The truth is more complicated.

Millions of people poor people are employed. The U.S. poverty line is $18,530 per year for a mother with two kids. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 7 percent of all workers — almost 10 million people — live below the poverty line.

Helping people develop the skills they need to get and keep jobs is essential, but it’s not nearly enough if we are concerned about ending poverty and not just about ending welfare.

That will require a commitment to families, making sure that they have the shelter, nutrition, health care and good schools that will help them break the cycle of poverty.

As Ronald Reagan said, the best social program is a job — but it’s not the only social program that matters. Until a paycheck can be reasonably expected to support a family’s needs, we will have the vicious cycle of generational poverty.

Lawmakers should find a way to reduce the impact of the welfare cliff, and they should do so quickly because there is still a lot of work to do.


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