WASHINGTON — A public interest group here labeled Maine one of eight states where political leaders are playing “Scrooge” to their poorest citizens this Christmas season by imposing deep cuts in welfare programs.
The criticism came only days after California Gov. Pete Wilson proposed slashing welfare grants by 25 percent and other major states like New York have begun debating similar drastic actions in response to huge budget deficits.
Rollin Ives, Maine’s commissioner of human services, dismissed the report compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as a tactic employed by “an advocacy group that makes a living urging higher spending.” He said that Maine’s political leaders need make no “apologies” for taking steps to stem the state’s current fiscal crisis.
“We have a billion dollar shortfall. Even so, spending for human services programs went up 18 percent,” said Ives, although new spending cutbacks ordered by Gov. John R. McKernan could trim back increases in welfare spending to between 15 or 16 percent.
“It is impossible not to reduce these accounts when our economy is in a free fall,’ Ives said. “Here in Maine, we’re fighting for our economic lives … It’s unfortunate, but we are not able to do what we did in previous years.”
Actually, Maine’s level of benefits for Aid to Families and Dependent Children program, the nation’s largest welfare program, compares favorably to other states. Only 13 other states pay a larger maximum benefit to AFDC recipients than Maine’s $453 per month. Mississippi’s $120 and Alabama’s $149 monthly payments are the smallest. Alaska’s $924 and Connecticut’s $680 monthly payments are the largest.
According to CBPP, a liberal Washington think tank, Maine reduced overall AFDC benefits for working families by as much as $79 per month, cut the state’s medical need program, reduced General Assistance spending and cut funding for low-income housing by 90 percent. Additional AFDC cuts may be enacted during the current legislative session.
The Washington group also criticized state political leaders for enacting tax increases last fall that imposed a disproportionately high burden on low-income families. Most of the $180 million increase in taxes came from a one-cent hike in the sales tax, which CBPP said discriminated against low-income families.
The Rev. Thomas J. Harvey, president of Catholic Charities USA, one of several human service groups that participated in the CBPP study, accused the nation’s political leaders of playing “Scrooge” this year to the nation’s needy. “More and better bread lines are not the answer,” he said.
Only a handful of states managed to shield the needy from spending cuts enacted to eliminate $30 billion in deficits caused by declining revenues and the stagnant economy, the Washington group’s report said.
“The overall picture is of the worst set of cuts made by states that affect low-income people since at least the early 1980s,” said Isaac Shapiro, a senior research analyst with the Center.
Forty states froze or cut benefits under the AFDC program, the deepest cut since 1981. Of the 30 states with supplemental general assistance programs, 14 reduced them. Nearly a half-million people were affected, the report said.
Eleven states cut emergency payments intended to avert homelessness, and nine cut programs to help those already homeless. Four states cut and 20 others froze benefits for the low-income elderly, blind or disabled. Programs to make housing more affordable were slashed an average of 20 percent.
More bad news is on the horizon. Many legislatures are convening special sessions this month to make further cutbacks because revenue collections are lower than expected, CBPP said.
According to CBPP, Michigan and Massachusetts made the deepest cuts. In addition to halting general assistance, Michigan cut basic AFDC benefits, payments to the elderly, drug subsidies, food aid and emergency money when people are about to lose electricity or heat. Massachusetts eliminated $47 million in AFDC emergency payments and general assistance.
Maine was grouped with five other states cited as enacting “significant” cuts in welfare spending.
Ives said that the current recession has placed tremendous pressure on welfare officials in all of the states because while many more citizens need assistance, tax revenues to pay for such services are declining.
“Our job is to be more than just advocates for the poor. We also have to be leaders, which means setting reasonable levels on spending. I see my job as one of setting reasonable limits and I am prepared for attacks by special interest groups that make a living pushing for expanded spending,” Ives said.
“The problem is, our needs keep accelerating (because of the recession). The governor and Legislature have not turned their backs on the needs of the poor. The reality is we just are not able to do as much as in past years,” the commissioner said.
Maine’s spending for welfare programs, according to Ives, probably increased by 70 to 80 percent during the first four years of the McKernan administration and will go up an additional 15 to 16 percent during the current budget year despite a growing state budget deficit.