Reading the papers in Maine these days, or hearing our governor speak on the topic, one would estimate that nearly everyone in Maine is on welfare.

The language about “moochers,” “takers” and lazy “able-bodied” 20-somethings proliferates daily. I’m not quite sure about the motives for such vitriol, but I imagine that many working people blame the poor for the stagnation of their own wages and standard of living.

I also imagine that for Gov. Paul LePage and his allies, scapegoating the poor has been a successful political tool. Everyone seems to have an anecdote to share that is very similar to reports of the “Cadillac-driving welfare mom” of the 1970s, popularized by Ronald Reagan and friends during his presidential campaign.

Busybodies at the grocery store seem very active spotting illicit candy, lobsters and steak in the grocery carts of one of those “moochers.”

I personally have never been able to figure that out, because I don’t have a clue how other people are paying for their stuff. I must admit that I don’t even look at those in front of me and don’t pay attention to what they’re buying.

How do you spot an electronic benefits transfer card, and how do you know what money is on it? Is it child support, unemployment, back taxes? I need to take lessons from my conservative friends so I can be more vigilant in the future.

But the data simply don’t match up with the right-wing rhetoric that says that Maine is a welfare state, rife with abuse and with folks from away coming here for those “better benefits.”

Fewer than 1 percent of Maine residents (an average of 10,425 per month as of April) receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the only “cash welfare” program out there.

As of May, some 201,000 people, or 15 percent of the population, take part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps), with the federal government paying all $350 million per year of the benefit. The state paid only $9.6 million in administrative costs for that largesse.

The average Maine food stamp benefit of $116 per month is in the bottom 25 percent of the country. The food stamp error rate, as audited by the federal government, is less than 2.5 percent.

All of this data is readily available on the government’s websites for SNAP and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, which administers the TANF program. They contain a treasure trove of information about our federal tax dollar spending and state-by-state enrollment data.

The vast majority of Mainers are honest and hardworking. Less than 17 percent of our population is on TANF or food stamps, and most of those people are retired, children, disabled or among the working poor.

The welfare programs in Maine are not out of control and are not being abused any more than any other government or private program. And yet if we repeat the mantra about welfare “abuse” over and over again for years, it sticks and resonates with some voters. The fact that it’s just not true seems to matter little.

When it comes to our state budget, welfare benefits are not the cost driver. One hundred percent of food stamps and TANF are federally funded. Eliminating all of that tomorrow would not save the state budget one thin dime.

So how is “fixing welfare” the same as “saving our state budget”? It’s not, and the governor knows that — or should know it.

Spending on health care, education, prisons, police, roads and other regular functions of government makes up nearly all of our state budget.

According to, Maine spends only 2.3 percent of all its revenue on public assistance and receives 36 percent of its total revenue from the federal government. What a fascinating set of statistics.

The budget arguments about “welfare reform” seem to be a whole lot of rhetoric about two cents — literally!

The next time we hear a Maine politician talk about “welfare reform,” we need to ask them what they really mean. We need to ask them specifically how it affects our state budget, and insist that they provide specific data and budget amounts. Their answers should be quite illuminating.

Lewis Collins is a resident of Readfield.

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