By Timothy J. Lajoie
This past May I attended the Republican Convention as the chairman of the Lewiston Republican delegation. I heard Governor Paul LePage give a speech where he reiterated his commitment to Maine’s elderly, disabled, and children—the most vulnerable among us. It was heartening to hear that, since my grandmother is 92 and my mother is 67.
Surely, after working their entire lives to raise families, they have earned the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they will be cared for in their sunset years. I cannot think of anything more cruel than to abandon them—after a lifetime of contributing to society—when they need us most.
The next day, however, imagine my shock when the local media outlets accused the governor of telling those who receive state assistance that they need to “get off the couch and get a job.” To be fair to the media, he did say that. He just never directed the statement at folks like my mother or my grandmother or the disabled or children. He directed it at those able to make a contribution, as my mother and grandmother have, but who have chosen not to.
It’s time to have a responsible conversation about welfare in this state—a conversation that does not employ the usual scare tactics or inflammatory rhetoric about wanting to throw the needy into the street if you want to cut entitlement spending, attach more stringent requirements for qualifying for it or putting time limits on receiving it. Republicans are trying to have that conversation, while Democrats are trying to scare Mainers.
As a Republican let me say emphatically that I have no intention of putting the elderly, disabled or children out on the street. I have no intention of denying basic needs to community members who are unable to provide for themselves. All Republicans I know share my sentiments. But let me also say this: the Democrats know this. Yet that has not stopped them from saying exactly the opposite.
I do not know of any Mainer who wants to deny aid to those unable to help themselves. All Mainers know people they care about who fall into this category. Age, infirmity or disability truly prevents these people from working—and Mainers agree that the community has a moral responsibility to lend them a hand.
These neighbors of ours do not want to be dependent on other people for their needs but unfortunately they are, through no fault of their own. Mainers have always been willing—at great financial sacrifice—to help them.
But what of those Mainers who are unwilling to help themselves? We’ve seen them. They are young, able-bodied and live active lifestyles. We see them at the supermarket paying for their groceries with their state-issued EBT card, then taking out a wad of cash to pay for cigarettes, beer and lottery tickets.
Somehow they have the money to fund their vices, whether it’s tattoos, alcohol, tobacco, or gambling, yet they cannot afford to buy food for themselves or their families. They can afford computer game consoles, expensive cell phones and 50-inch TVs, but they cannot afford their groceries or rent payments.
Most Mainers also know someone who falls into this category. I meet them every day as I go door to door campaigning in the neighborhoods of the district I am hoping to represent in Augusta. I can tell you categorically that my neighbors are tired of “helping” these folks—helping them fuel their vices, fund their luxuries and support their irresponsible priorities. They believe that sometimes “helping” these people means cutting them off and forcing them to be self-reliant.
The political fear mongering used in the welfare debate raging in this state disgusts me. It insults Mainers. Mainers know the difference between the “unable” and the “unwilling.” So does the governor.
Democrats would have us believe that no one receiving state aid is “unwilling.” To Democrats, they are all “unable.” Mainers know this is false, but more on that later.
If you ask fellow generous Mainers—and I have—how they feel about a portion of their taxes going to support programs that aid the elderly, the infirm or the disabled, they will tell you to a person that they have no problem with it.
If you ask these individuals—and I have—how they feel about a portion of their taxes providing aid to productive people who are currently out of work and actively seeking employment, the response is the same. Mainers have a depth of compassion and understanding for that demographic. Mainers are willing to open their hearts—and their wallets—for these folks.
I do, however, know many Mainers who are tired of helping those unwilling to help themselves. All Mainers also know someone who falls into this category. I meet them every day in my personal profession and as I go about my personal business in the community. Who are the people who fall into this category, you ask?
There is the 20-something male who manages to get a disability because he has “anger management issues,” but can play on his video game all day or hang with his friends watching TV. There is the 20-something young woman who collects a disability check because she has a “personality disorder,” yet manages to be a regular on the local club scene.
Or, for my final example, there is the college-educated heroin user who collects a state check because he is a “drug addict” and cannot work, but somehow manages to entertain his favorite hobbies all day long.
In each of these cases, the individual seems to be able to overcome their “challenges” if it suits them. Since the state has no expectation that they overcome these “challenges” so they can enter the work force, there is no incentive to do so. Why should they when the checks keep coming? They are not unable to work if they can engage in their favorite activities. Mainers see it as unwilling—and rightfully so.
If you ask the average Mainer—and I have asked some—how they feel about their tax money going to support these types of individuals, the response is much different. There is anger, resentment and disgust. Why are they angry, resentful and disgusted?
I have found there are a variety of reasons. The primary reason is they do not like supporting laziness, irresponsibility and the natural consequences of poor choices. Further, they are sick and tired of government officials in Augusta and Washington telling them that laziness, irresponsibility and poor choices are the same as “elderly, disabled and children.”
Mainers know the difference between those who are on hard times through no fault of their and those who create their own hard times because they are irresponsible—and they know their government knows the difference too. Mainers want government to motivate the irresponsible; motivate them to support themselves, learn responsibility and improve their life choices.
There are two ethical questions here. The first has already been answered: we Mainers believe we have a fundamental responsibility in humanity to help those who cannot help themselves. Mainers have embraced it.
The second question is: “What is our responsibility to those who are able to help themselves but do not?”
We have a responsibility to see that they do not pick the pockets of those who work hard. We have a responsibility to say, “Get off the couch and get a job,” as Governor LePage eloquently put it. We have a responsibility to take away every dollar we give them so we can give it to someone who really needs it—like my 92-year-old grandmother.
Sometimes the “compassionate” thing to do is withdraw the free ride. Sometimes the “compassionate” thing to do is force someone who refuses to help himself to do so.
My father called it “tough love.” There is a time for that, and the Mainers I have talked to believe that time is here.
Tim Lajoie is a Republican candidate for House District 74 in Lewiston.