Long-time readers know that I’m not shy about calling out politicians for particular behaviours (repeatedly if it seems appropriate), particularly around election time. I really do only try to do it for politicians displaying examples of particularly egregious attitudes or behavior based on those attitudes: ableism, racism, sexism, classism, etc. Robert MacDonald, Republican Mayor of Lewiston, Maine, wants to submit a bill for the next legislative session that could potentially be all of these, so let’s welcome him to the blog.
Content Note: Politics, Poverty-Shaming
Image Description: The word “Welfare” in bronze block letters in front of an American flag.
Robert MacDonald’s Proposed Bill – The Basics
On September 24, in his regular column in the Twin City Times, Robert McDonald informed readers that “the days of quiet are gone” and that:
We will be submitting a bill to the next legislative session asking that a website be created containing the names, addresses, length of time on assistance and the benefits being collected by every individual on the dole. After all, the public has a right to know how its money is being spent.
The rationale behind this is that there’s already a website in Maine that lists the amounts received by those that get a monthly pension from the state of Maine. Robert McDonald feels that it’s fair that welfare recipients be identified on a website as well.
It’s not about shaming people on welfare, he says. Just letting people know exactly how their tax dollars are supporting what “liberal, progressive legislators and their social-service allies” have made a “victimized, protected class.” Besides, he doesn’t need to “name and shame” people, because people on assistance “flaunt it” when they use food stamps in supermarkets.
I believe that this isn’t about shaming, don’t you? #sarcasm
Why Robert MacDonald’s Bill Should Not Pass
I tried to find the pension website, but I couldn’t. However, while it may display names and amounts (I find it hard to believe that it even displays names, but I wonder what the purpose of the site is otherwise) I guarantee that it doesn’t display address and the length of time receiving pension. That’s illegal, and it’s why Robert MacDonald’s bill wouldn’t have gone through even if he could have found lawmakers to sponsor it. He couldn’t find sponsors, by the way.
But there are many reasons why it shouldn’t go through besides the fact that it’s trying to put something illegal in place, including:
- It’s potentially dangerous for those who are trying to escape abuse situations
- It’s punitive. People in difficulty have a right to access this resource without being shamed about it by the people providing it.
- It won’t be particularly effective if the overall goal is to reduce spending, as Former Senator Ethan Strimling showed in his assessment of Maine Governor Paul LePage’s investigation of assistance programs. Strimling showed that in 2014, public sector unemployment and food stamps showed $293 000 in possible fraud, a little over 2%, while the corporate welfare program showed $223 million in possible fraud.
Lewiston’s rate of people using assistance is especially high compared to the rest of Maine. But that’s not really the point. Robert MacDonald’s bill is terribly, terribly, insulting, and he needs to be called out on that.
Why Robert MacDonald’s Bill is Insulting
It’s not a nice feeling when you realize that your government’s default reaction to you is to assume that you’re going to be a criminal, or that you already are.
Countrywide there’s a narrative in place that people on welfare just don’t want to work. They just want things handed to them, when what they really need to do is just get a job.
Robert MacDonald would put all Maine welfare recipients’ information up on the internet, assuming that it will shame them into finding work, when a large number of people on welfare are already working. Hard. It’s just that even with a job, they still can’t make ends meet. A 2015 report from Berkeley showed that, largely because of low wages, “nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of enrollees in America’s major public support programs are members of working families.”
Very few people just want to sit around and not work. Suggesting that everyone who receives welfare be lumped into that one group, especially when evidence suggests that it’s very much the minority, simply isn’t fair, and it’s insulting to people who are working very hard and simply need some help.
The ultimately more cost-effective way to get people off welfare is to increase wages, but I doubt that Robert MacDonald would support that, either.
Tell the Republican Party that This is Unacceptable
The insistence that poverty is a choice and indicative of bad character is the Republican war on the poor at its worst. It brings about petty, punitive actions like those of Robert MacDonald’s that largely affect non-privileged groups and that potentially further bring further stigma on individuals and families that are already experiencing it.
For example, if a disabled person getting food stamps interviews for a job, and the interviewer is already wavering about whether they want a disabled person working for them, what happens if they just “happen” to check this website after the interview and see that the person has also been getting food stamps for a significant amount of time? If they hold negative views about people who get food stamps, is the person likely to get the job? No.
All of that discrimination is illegal, of course. But would it happen?
You bet it would.
As I said, fortunately Robert MacDonald’s bill won’t go through. But you can’t legislate away his attitude.
The citizens of Lewiston, however, can vote Robert MacDonald out in November. Let’s hope that this is what happens.