“I read the news today, oh boy…” (Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, “A Day in the Life”).
I read in the news today that Commissioner Mayhew (DHHS—“the Department”) was lobbying Maine’s congressional delegation for support in fighting welfare fraud, particularly regarding food stamps. I know I see things with some bias—I have spent close to 20 years working from an office in a building that has supported more than 20,000 individuals and families who needed food and shelter badly enough to get them to the doors of a homeless shelter. I witness many more people legitimately in need of support than I do abusers. And I get curious—what has been the actual magnitude of abuse? Does client or consumer abuse reach the same threshold of need to respond as do the needs and problems and pain experienced by Maine’s poorest families, those who should be at the heart of the Department’s mission?
I’ve read other things in the news. I remember reading, 6 or 8 years ago and during a previous administration, about losses in the millions of dollars caused by the Department’s choice of computer vendors. More recently, under the current administration, there were news articles about big losses not caused by clients’ manipulation but by the Department’s sending benefits to people who didn’t qualify to receive them. And there’s a current issue connected with the Department’s handling of some of our state’s most mentally ill adults, and another federal finding that no, Maine cannot avoid certain legal obligations concerning several thousand young adults and Medicaid. I am unaware of any items in the news citing the Department’s acknowledgment that the administration’s refusal to expand Medicaid has resulted in a surge of charity care and millions of dollars in loss for the same hospitals the governor cited in his campaign because he “paid them back.” I do not remember reading articles about new programs showing promise for foster parents or at risk youth. I cannot recall the Commissioner celebrating human success stories or advocating for better systems of care.
Speaking of systems of care, there is a hard-working, collaborative team here in Bangor that is stumped. The team consists of two shelters, the local crisis program, outreach folks, and local law enforcement. This team has figured out how to work well together, but it has not yet figured out what to do about a few people who won’t agree to the conditions attached to their being able to stay inside somewhere. They have “burned bridges” everywhere. They are hard to deal with, frequently intoxicated, usually angry, and always anti-social. There is serious, underlying mental illness. There are very real threats to their own safety as well as to any unknowing citizens who might happen to go where they are camped. We’re spending local tax dollars and private resources keeping tabs, trying to reengage, and working for safety. The Department’s stake is confined to the paying for the time of one member of this team.
The statistics available that measure poverty, hunger, unemployment, earnings and housing costs all document significant levels of real human need. Of course we should prevent and punish abuse, but shouldn’t the commentary from the leadership of the state’s safety net be more focused on human welfare and aggregate health than on a relatively small number of system abusers? When did our government become so stuck on an ideologically driven agenda that it seemingly lost compassion and stopped focusing on people in need? Thank God for the number of caring and generous people we see who find ways to bring care and support to this Shelter, but I am concerned that they may be getting tired from carrying the weight while they face increasing threats to their own financial security. I’m pretty sure I remember when government, through its actions and statements, demonstrated that it acted with guidance from a moral compass. With the exceptions of statements of concern for our veterans, victims of domestic violence, and the elderly, where has it gone? And where are the statements of real teamwork? Maine citizens living in poverty, all of them, need the state’s vision and support.