Lewiston mayor seeks to expose names of welfare recipients

The political happenings of the small Maine metropolis of Lewiston have made national headlines the past two weeks after Mayor Robert MacDonald suggested that the names of welfare recipients be made public knowledge. “The public has a right to know how its money is being spent,” MacDonald wrote in a September 24 column that appeared in Lewiston-Auburn’s weekly newspaper, the Twin City Times. He stated his intent to submit a bill that would create a citizen-accessible online database identifying welfare recipients. In addition to the names of those receiving welfare checks, the site would list their addresses, the benefits they receive, and the length of time they have been receiving them. While the bill will not move forward in this legislative cycle because MacDonald was unable to find a sponsor before the September 28 deadline, conversations sparked by his controversial proposal are ongoing.

In his column, MacDonald criticizes the emergence of what he calls a “victimized, protected class.” He went on to question why individuals on government assistance are granted more privacy than pensioners, in reference to an existing state policy that lists online the recipients and amounts of monthly pension checks issued to retired state employees. Taxpayers have a right to the same information about welfare recipients, MacDonald argues.

However, to many Mainers, MacDonald’s proposal seems less about transparency and more about shaming the poor. In a September 26 Portland Press Herald article, Siiri Cressey of Lewiston called the concept “a shame tactic, pure and simple.” Cressey, who receives food stamps and housing assistance, said that it is ignorant for MacDonald to make a conclusion about whether or not someone deserves government aid. She also alluded to the already tempestuous divide between the rich and poor in Lewiston, expressing worry that this legislation would only worsen the relationship.

Even some former supporters of MacDonald feel that the welfare bill is “a step too far,” as reported by the Bangor Daily News on October 4. Paul Breton, who voted for MacDonald in the past, described the proposal as “welfare shaming,” and felt that public knowledge of this information would cause guilt to be assigned to citizens on government assistance.

MacDonald acknowledged the potentially harmful affects of his proposal. “Some people are going to get harmed but if it’s for the good of everybody, that’s the way it is,” he said. Despite the heated response to his plan, he is not entirely lacking in support. Currents of frustration and resentment about welfare spending run through Lewiston, and to some, like Claire Bourgoin, the issue is so important that the possibility of hurting welfare recipients is simply a necessary cost of fixing overspending. Bourgoin told the Portland Press Herald that they support MacDonald’s plan, and added, “these people can avoid getting a job because they probably do better by not working.”

Initially, it was unclear if MacDonald’s proposal was explicitly intended to shame welfare recipients, or if that was simply a byproduct of increased transparency. MacDonald’s column primarily advocated for openness in how federal money was being spent, and made no direct mention of deterrence as an objective of the legislation. However, MacDonald has since clarified that dissuading the poor from applying for benefits is in fact an intended outcome. In an interview with the Portland Press Herald, MacDonald was unapologetic and said that welfare recipients “flaunt” their benefits in public. “I hope this makes people think twice about applying for welfare,” he said.

MacDonald also conceives of the public database as a means to remedy welfare fraud, or to “go after all these people who are gaming the system.” The database would be a safety net; if citizens were to see a neighbor or acquaintance on the list that they felt did not belong there, they could make a call to alert authorities. Justin Dube, who also spoke to the Portland Press Herald, acknowledged that welfare fraud is a real issue, but feels that a database would do little if anything to solve it, because “the people who are trying to work the system don’t care.” A public database would magnify the already large stigma associated with being on welfare, as echoed by Dube’s statement that “it’s the people who are embarrassed already who this would hurt.”

However, MacDonald’s critics can rest assured with the knowledge that the likelihood of such a bill ever becoming law is low, evidenced by his failure to garner support from lawmakers. He approached two state senators, Republican Eric Brakey and Democrat Nate Libby, but both refused to sponsor the bill. Since the deadline for the current legislative session has passed, the only way the bill will be heard is if Governor Paul LePage himself submits it. LePage, a Republican and Lewiston native, has long been critical of welfare programs, and made headlines last spring when he pushed for the expansion of drug testing programs and measures that would prevent individuals with prior drug convictions from receiving certain forms of government assistance. However, despite LePage’s track record, he has made no move to publicly support MacDonald’s legislation, nor does he intend to, according to his communications director Peter Steele.

Some have questioned MacDonald’s motives in writing the column, suggesting they were more political than practical given that he is seeking his third re-election this November. One of his most vocal critics is his opposition candidate Ben Chin, a Democrat who called the plan “a completely political stunt” in a September 25 article in the Portland Press Herald. Chin charged that the move is characteristic of MacDonald, who “is good at grabbing headlines, but not at delivering.” Chin isn’t alone in his frustration about MacDonald’s perceived inaction despite his rhetoric. Maine resident Leo Giardin said to the Portland Press Herald the following day, “if he [MacDonald] wants to do something, why doesn’t he try to create jobs instead of complaining about all these people that don’t have jobs.”

MacDonald is no stranger to criticism or controversy. In 2012, a petition calling for him to step down garnered thousands of signatures after he said that immigrants coming to the United States should “accept our culture and leave [their] culture at the door.” At the time, Somali immigrants represented about 10% of the city’s population.

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