Proof is in the numbers: LePage is failing poor children

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Gov. Paul LePage have withheld about $110 million of federal funding from poor families in the name of “welfare reform.”

For the past four years, they’ve been skimming dollars meant to support low-income families who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and allowed this huge surplus to develop.

They’ve also kicked thousands of people off of food assistance, maintained a steady attack on General Assistance, and undermined successful programs that provide training and education for TANF parents so that they have the skills to re-enter the workforce.

When held accountable for its activities, the department — speaking for the LePage administration — calls names, touts questionable statistics and, frankly, denies reality.

Meanwhile, the department, which spent money meant to fight poverty two years ago on a bogus and plagiarized report, continues to have trouble with data.

The department says that the number of kids in the state living in poverty — which is different than the measure of extreme poverty — dropped from 54,000 in 2012 to 45,000 in 2013 and cites the drop as proof of its success. Unfortunately, those data points skip over the fact that the number of kids living at or below the poverty level didn’t remain on a downward trend. According to Kids Count, the number jumped back up in 2014, to 48,000.

These numbers are too high, and bragging about 45,000 kids living in poverty while you’re sitting on $110 million intended to help those very kids doesn’t win any points with me.

Those figures also ignore the number of kids living in extreme poverty, for which the trend is clear. Between 2010 and 2014, that number increased from 17,000 to 23,000, with a one-year dip in 2013.

A family of four living at or below the poverty level has an annual income of about $24,000 or less. For extreme poverty, the family’s annual income would be half that. Going by the data, 23,000 kids are living in families who make $1,000 a month or less to support a family of four.

The department attempts to argue that extreme poverty was higher in 2004, but when looking at data it’s important to pay attention to the footnotes.

As the research they cite, from the Kids Count Data Center, says for its numbers in 2004 and earlier: “In general but particularly for these years, use caution when interpreting estimates for less populous states or indicators representing small sub-populations, where the sample size is relatively small.”

The data, the note says, are much more reliable after 2004 due to a change in sampling techniques. And the data for recent years are full of bad news.

There’s simply nothing good to say about the number of kids living in poverty in Maine, no matter how hard the department might try to explain it away.

As it has shown with its handling of Riverview Psychiatric Center, public health and many of its core functions, the Department of Health and Human Services has become little more than a propaganda shop pushing right-wing talking points and implementing a survival-of-the-fittest approach that would go so far as to put mental health patients in prison because the department doesn’t have the policy depth to actually solve problems.

Conservatives often make the argument that government can’t solve problems such as childhood poverty. Under the LePage administration that’s certainly become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The governor and his DHHS have turned attacks on poor Mainers into one of the state’s most popular spectator sports. He belittles people living in poverty, demonizes them, then violates federal regulations in order to make their lives more difficult.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

There’s no hand up. There’s no pathway to self-sufficiency. There’s no support for the holy grail of personal responsibility.

Instead, there’s blame. There’s anger. And there’s a department with a mission of helping Mainers in trouble hamstrung by ideology, an exodus of skilled professionals who have been replaced with political operatives, and bureaucratic incompetence. Frankly, much of what’s left is just plain meanness.

LePage and his administration have drastically reduced the numbers of families receiving assistance without a plan to help them get work.

He has fought tooth and nail to destroy a successful program that helps mostly single mothers learn critical job skills. Fewer people are receiving food assistance, despite little decrease in the amount of need.

And too many children are living in poverty and extreme poverty.

The administration argues that correlation doesn’t mean causation.

But let’s be clear. The LePage administration has reduced low-income families’ access to support, to education, to money and to food while the number of poor children is increasing.

Causation vs. correlation? Is that really the question that we should asking? I don’t think so.

The LePage administration didn’t invent poverty. But its policies aren’t helping kids to escape its grasp, either.

It’s time for reforms that will actually work. What LePage and his administration are doing isn’t.

And the proof? It’s not just in the data from a bunch of reports. It’s in the homeless shelters, food pantries and schools from one end of the state to the other.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at