LePage speaks from the heart, but his policies don’t match

Gov. Paul LePage was speaking from the heart Tuesday night during his State of the State address when he talked about kids, particularly poor kids.

Relating his own experiences of growing up in extreme poverty and on the streets of Lewiston, young and alone, the governor talked about the stress of finding his next meal and a warm spot to sleep.

“I cannot accept children falling through the cracks and no one doing anything about it,” he said.

If his rhetoric – personal, touching and spot on – matched his policies, he would find a lot more allies than the plurality of hardcore supporters who elected him.

But his rhetoric and his policies don’t match, and the ideas he has pushed are already harming many children.

They need someone in the Blaine House who will defend them with at least the same passion that LePage uses when he attacks “union bosses” and “crony capitalism,” favorite Tea Party slogans that don’t hold a lot of meaning in the real world.

Looking at almost any economic indicator, the number of poor kids in Maine has grown under LePage and his policies.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count” report, the number of children living in poverty has grown from about 46,000 in 2009 to nearly 51,000 in 2011. Nearly one in five kids in Maine lives in poverty.

Shockingly, almost 46 percent of school children in the state receive subsidized lunches and 50 percent receive health insurance through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

About one in three receive food stamps.

Despite the growing number of children who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from or whether or not they will have a warm place to sleep, the number of children receiving help from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has dropped.

Even with poverty growing, fewer than 6 percent of kids are covered by the program in 2012, a number that is dropping through targeted and purposeful public policy changes.

LePage’s attacks on anti-poverty programs, and particularly TANF, mean that fewer kids are receiving the help they need.

Childhood poverty is becoming a bigger and bigger problem, while the governor’s response is getting smaller and smaller.

Right now, the Legislature is considering a number of budget proposals that would make this problem even worse.

The governor has proposed sharp reductions in General Assistance. General Assistance is a program of last resort for many families. More often than not, it’s used to keep families in their homes when the bottom falls out of their lives.

The stereotypes and mythology surrounding the program ignore the reality that it fights homelessness and helps to stabilize families when terrible things have happened – a death, sudden illness, unemployment.

There’s no question that children do best in a loving, stable family with committed parents. The “stable” is an important part of the equation.

When children are forced to spend nights in a shelter or bed hop between friends and family, stability disappears. Uncertainty becomes the rule of the day.

While the governor was proud of the tax cuts he passed last year and angry about the kids he fears will fall through the cracks, he did not connect the impacts of his decisions with the outcomes he decries.

The top earners in Maine will benefit most from the governor’s tax policy, while the cuts that the tax changes require will hurt middle class families and those struggling to get into the middle class.

Under the governor’s plan, property taxes will go up, municipalities will have little choice but to cut vital programs and funding for education, and the planks in the bridge out of poverty will get farther apart for thousands of families.

And while the governor touts his tax cuts as helping everyone, the Maine Center for Economic Policy finds that the poorest 40 percent of Maine households will actually see their overall tax bill go up as programs like the Circuit Breaker, which reduces property taxes on working families, are eliminated.

Jeff Bridges, a favorite actor of mine after his role in The Big Lebowski, is an advocate for ending hunger in the United States. In a message perhaps so simple only The Dude could deliver it, he puts it this way: “Poverty is a very complicated issue but feeding a child isn’t.”

We may never unravel all the causes of poverty, but there are things we can do to help working families build a better life for themselves and their children.

And those things include fair tax policy where the well-off pay their share, support for anti-poverty programs that work and public policies that don’t demonize families because they are struggling.