In one corner stands the reigning champion – the Welfare Party, a cadre of progressive lawmakers and special interest groups dedicated to expanding Maine’s welfare system, vigilantly guarding against the slightest whisper of reform. In the other corner stands the plucky underdog opponent – the Working Party, a small but spirited cohort of conservatives, who believe Maine’s welfare system needs a new direction, a new focus.
For more than four decades, liberal Democrats and progressive Republicans have governed as if government is the only intelligent and infallible sustainer of the people. The progressive ideology guiding their choices dedicates them to the amelioration of human suffering by any means possible, those means typically being the program. The children are hungry? A program shall feed them. The people are sick? A program shall cure them. The mill is closing? A program shall revive it. History has yet to produce a social ill for which the good progressive will not recommend yet more and more programs.
And the great multiplicity of such programs suggests the Welfare Party, at least at the level of policy, has triumphed in nearly every recent contest of reform. The social safety net, as we euphemistically refer to our coercive system of resource redistribution, has been woven according to a thoroughly progressive pattern, with only the occasional contribution from conservative gadflies. As such, it has as its aim neither social stability nor economic harmony, but the wholesale remaking of man’s immutable nature. But despite the myriad programs progressives have, with the best of intentions, put forth as solutions to our woes, innumerable social problems seem only to multiply.
In our own state, the Department of Health and Human Services has grown, hand-in-hand with its federal counterpart, to consume the vast majority of public resources – all in the name of programs. We have programs to help people buy food, programs to help people find shelter, and programs to keep us healthy. We have, in short, no shortage of programs to cure every social malaise. Yet, for all of our programs, our problems persist, and not because our programs go without use.
Indeed, if measured by rate of use, Maine’s myriad programs have been a remarkable success. As of June 2013, nearly 1/5 of all Mainers relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) or food stamps, giving us the 7th highest rate of food stamp use in the United States. Maine also has the highest participation rate in the medical welfare program known as Medicaid. Nearly 1/3 of all Mainers rely on the government for basic health care, a rate of use topped only by the District of Columbia. Enrollment in other welfare programs, such as the Section 8 public housing assistance program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash welfare program remain similarly high.
However, broad participation in redistributive programs is not the mark of success, not even according to these programs’ goals, which typically aim to return the benefit recipient to a life of productive independence. In that most important metric, these programs have failed us utterly, as evidenced by stable and increasing growth in spending on them. For instead of a quick encounter with public assistance, the more typical pattern is an extended relationship. And, in extreme instances, one encounter with a generous welfare system spawns multiple generations of dependence on government, a culture of entitlement.
Such is the status quo of Maine’s welfare state: a multiplicity of programs aimed at curing the people of their problems but failing spectacularly in the process. Yet rather than confront our basic programming error, there are those who believe we have not programmed hard enough, for long enough, or have poured too little of our tax dollars into existing programs.
The approaching contest of wills between the Welfare Party and the Working Party will be defined by these two competing realities. The Welfare Party is of the opinion that more programs and more spending on programs will make for a more prosperous state. Forty years of doing just that proves them wrong, but the paternal instinct of progressive politicians is rarely halted by history or facts. The Working Party, for its part, will try to correct programming errors, such as areas of abuse, misuse, and fraud, with a view to combating government dependency, a thing antithetical to prosperity. This contest will determine, with some degree of finality, whether Maine is truly capable of meaningful course correction. If not, spiraling government dependence, chilled by demographic winter, will surely be our fate.