Commentary

Madawaska Considers Welfare Reforms Amid Economic Struggles

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The town of Madawaska is considering bold changes to its General Assistance program that would ensure every last tax payer dollar collected in their community is being used to help those who are truly in need and on a path to prosperity.

Madawaska has a workfare program that treats its General Assistance recipients similar to town workers, making them subject to drug screenings. Workfare programs provide training, job readiness and employment search services to enrollees.

Currently in Madawaska, only those who are enrolled in this program and receive benefits are subject to screenings, however the town is looking to change that requirement to include all General Assistance recipients.

General Assistance provides funds for necessities like food and housing for Mainers in need. The Madawaska Board of Selectmen held a meeting on Tuesday to discuss changing its policy to include these screenings across the board.

Governor Paul LePage, a longtime proponent of welfare reform, has praised Madawaska’s review of its public funding for this program and believes these changes would lead to more responsible spending and less government dependency.

“Ensuring our welfare programs are helping those who are truly needy and willing to work toward economic stability is important,” LePage told the Portland Press Herald. He also called the town’s proposal “fiscally responsible.”

Given Madawaska’s lower population, this northern Maine town is a realistic venue for attempting these reforms. Last year, the town’s General Assistance budget was only $16,000 and gave benefits to just 45 citizens. According to Town Manager Ryan Pelletier, only two of those 45 recipients are currently enrolled in the workfare program. Others were not enrolled because they are disabled or in the process of proving their disability.

The proposed changes are a proactive way to combat recent economic hardships the town has faced. In June, Twin Rivers Paper Company announced that 49 employees would be laid off by the end of July and the company would be shutting down its No. 3 paper machine.

Because of industry struggles, Twin Rivers will lay off roughly 10 percent of its workers and invest in its No. 8 paper machine to better position the company for the future.

In that same month, Evergreen Manufacturing, a perfume company in Madawaska with 70 employees, announced it would close its doors. Evergreen was forced to end operations after losing its primary contract with international cosmetics brand Elizabeth Arden, which accounted for 95 percent of the company’s business.

Because the town is expecting an increase in General Assistance enrollment, the Board of Selectmen have a real opportunity to ensure its able-bodied, working age citizens actually land on their feet after getting laid off. Instead of falling into the clutches of government dependency and generational poverty, these workers can remain working, producing and consuming through the town’s workfare program.

The proposed changes to General Assistance and the workfare program would hold these workers responsible for making the right decisions to climb out of poverty. Because they are using public funds to get by, they have an obligation to their neighbors to remain active members of the community.

Pelletier will give his recommendation to the town in August. Madawaska could enact the measure via popular referendum, a town meeting vote or an action by the town’s Board of Selectmen.

If these changes take shape, Madawaska can ensure its government assistance funds help those in need and those looking to better their lives and their community as the town continues to maneuver Maine’s harsh economic climate.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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