The proposal by Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald to create a registry of all Mainers who receive public assistance has almost no hope of success in the Legislature. It may not even get introduced as a bill.

But the registry doesn’t have to become law to cause harm. Just by throwing the idea out there, Macdonald perpetuates the most damaging welfare myth — that the many Mainers in need would simply pull themselves out of poverty and misfortune if it weren’t for the too-comforting influence of public benefits.

For the vast majority of welfare recipients, that clearly is not the case.

Still, some portion of voters is wrongly convinced that Maine’s poor are being coddled, and Macdonald and others like him — including Gov. Paul LePage, who isn’t backing the registry but employs the same rhetoric — are more than happy to play to that crowd.

And despite their protestations, it is an approach that absolutely demeans everyone who has sought help in a time of desperate need.

Worse, it does little to save the state money, and nothing to address the problems that force Mainers onto welfare in the first place.

Macdonald himself inadvertently made this point when asked by the Portland Press Herald if he was worried his proposal would hurt people legitimately in need of public assistance.

“I don’t care,” Macdonald told the paper. “Some people are going to get harmed, but if it’s for the good of everybody, that’s the way it is.”

As the mayor admits, a welfare registry — if it were even legal — would probably lead some legitimate beneficiaries to refuse the help they really need.

As a result, they would fall deeper into the morass of poverty, or they would further stress the private safety-net organizations that already are struggling to keep up with demand.

Others would feel they had no choice but to accept welfare, and suffer the added indignity of being branded as a mooch on a state website.

Indeed, many of the policies masquerading as welfare reform purport to target only the system’s abusers but in reality they would affect legitimate recipients just as much.

In fact, it seems the individual policies themselves are not really the point. Most do not produce appreciable savings, nor do they help individuals improve their circumstances.

But taken together, the policies, and the tone in which they are delivered, do create the appearance of broad misconduct in Maine’s welfare system, the feeling that everyone on the dole is gaming the system, or there through some personal deficiency.

It is an appeal to the worst impulses of Maine residents, and it leads to the demonization of people in crisis.

It also distracts from the actual solutions to lowering dependence on welfare: job training, affordable housing, access to health care and higher wages.

Maine has made some progress on each of those fronts, with ideas from both parties.

But more is needed, and the single-minded focus on the ghosts of “welfare cheats” doesn’t help at all.

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