Portland, Maine, is becoming a battleground for two visions of how the government should treat the poor. Mayor Michael Brennan is a Democrat who wants to raise the minimum wage, expand affordable housing and support the poor through government subsidies. Gov. Paul LePage is a Republican who wants to downsize government safety net programs. Their latest skirmish revolves around emergency shelter beds, which will receive less financial support from the state if Lepage gets his way.
Under LePage's leadership, fewer low-income residents have access to subsidies that used to pay for food, electricity, health care and tax relief for renters. His latest effort is focused on a specific state program administered by municipalities called “general assistance,” which provides temporary vouchers to the poor for basic necessities, including a night's stay at emergency shelters.
In April, an audit from the state department of health and human services claimed Portland was violating the state's law on general assistance. A city-run emergency shelter assumes that almost anyone who shows up looking for a place to sleep is eligible. It’s a policy that's been in place for more than a decade and hasn't bothered any prior governors, despite regular state audits.
General assistance has a complicated set of rules for determining eligibility, but in emergency situations -- such as homelessness -- cities can make a simple comparison of a person's income with expenses for basic necessities, such as food, electricity and rent. If the expenses are more than the income, the person is eligible.
"When somebody is looking for a place to stay at two o'clock in the morning, this is a relatively efficient and non-bureaucratic way to provide shelter for people," Brennan said.
In Portland, the cost of general assistance was about $10 million in the most recent budget year, covering about 4,300 individuals and families. The state was responsible for most of that spending (about $8.1 million), and the city covered the remaining sum. Shelter beds are the second biggest expense for general assistance in Portland, representing a little more than a quarter of the program’s total budget. Total spending on Portland's general assistance program has grown every year from 2005 to 2014, according to the city (see chart below from the city's department of health and human services).
It's no surprise general assistance has come under fire by state officials. LePage is part of a class of Republican governors elected in 2010 on a platform of shrinking government and cutting public spending on safety net programs. By winning a three-way race in November (with 48 percent of the vote), LePage guaranteed another four years of conflict between his administration and the state's more liberal mayors, particularly Brennan.
Almost 21 percent of all people in the Portland reported income below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 20 percent of households in the city received food stamps at some point in 2013 and about 7.5 percent received public cash assistance.
In 2013, LePage proposed several changes to general assistance that would have resulted in about $3 million in annual savings for the state, such as reducing the state's share of spending in large cities where most general assistance recipients live. The legislature -- controlled by Democrats at the time -- decided against most of his recommendations, forcing the executive branch to look for cost-cutting measures that didn't require legislative approval. One such measure appears to be an audit of how Portland administers general assistance.
The audit said the city should require people to complete four-page applications that ask about employment history, income sources, assets and monthly expenses. While people would still be presumed eligible for their first night at a shelter, the city would be on the hook for any additional nights if it turned out the person didn’t qualify for general assistance. (Currently, the city makes people fill out a condensed form.) The audit also asks the city to conduct monthly reviews to make sure the people at the shelter on general assistance are still eligible.
The only certain consequence of the state's recommendations is higher administrative costs to the city. Neither the state nor the city know for sure if everyone who currently uses general assistance for shelter beds would still qualify with a longer form and monthly reviews. Some might not. The risk is that the changes fail to weed out ineligible shelter users, but "could be discouraging for somebody [who is elible] to come sit through a long application process," Brennan said.
The dispute in Portland raises important questions about whether government should encourage people eligible for a public benefit to take advantage of that benefit. A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that when states simplified steps to enroll in food stamps -- taking personal information already on file from other government databases -- many more elderly applicants participated in the anti-hunger program. The reforms being proposed by LePage, however, actively discourage people from using benefits for which they are eligible.
So far, Portland hasn’t changed its policy and the state hasn’t taken further action. With LePage’s re-election in November, it’s likely that his administration will continue to look for ways to cut welfare. For example, the state and the city are currently in a legal battle over an administrative rule change that seeks to cut general assistance benefits. Earlier in the year, LePage announced that any municipality providing general assistance to undocumented immigrants would lose all state funding of general assistance -- eliminating help for non-immigrants as well. (About a third of Portland's general assistance caseload are immigrants, many of them refugees and asylum seekers, and the city says it's difficult to know which ones are legally present.)
In case the city loses that lawsuit, the city has already instituted a hiring freeze and freeze on travel. In the long run, if the state were to stop paying its entire share of general assistance, Brennan said, "it’s financially impossible for us to make up the difference."