During the Great Depression, New Deal public assistance programs did not just give people cash to prevent poverty. They centered on people receiving income in exchange for performing essential public work—whether planting trees through the Civilian Conservation Corps, or raising children through public childcare centers and “mothers pensions,” or electrifying rural America through the Tennessee Valley Authority. We had a country to build. We took the challenge of mass poverty as an opportunity to coordinate the efforts of large numbers of people to renew our country.
Those policies required more than money. They required getting clear on the substantive work that needed to be done to refashion American society. At a certain point, it became easier to not have those discussions, and anti-poverty programs based on meaningful, public work began to fizzle. The results are clear. Our aging infrastructure is crumbling. If people on general assistance are able to receive “workfare” assignments where they volunteer, they are not connected to any kind of city-wide consensus on the most important projects necessary to rebuild Lewiston, nor do those projects necessarily utilize the skills people have to offer, or set them up for success in the industries most likely to hire people.
We can change this situation. The public has a legitimate interest in asking for public work in exchange for public assistance—especially when so much work needs to get done. At the same time, people struggling to escape poverty deserve to do work that is meaningful, learning skills that will enable an independent income. Best of all, changing to this approach does not require additional resources—it may even help raise new revenue for the city.
Let’s learn from history. The vast majority of people that I talk to have no problem making sure the poor receive help. No one believes our welfare system should encourage dependency. Yet welfare remains one of the most divisive issues in Lewiston. It’s time to find a way forward. We can turn anti-poverty programs into a point of pride, not shame. We can show how they can meet the needs of everyone—especially seniors, small businesses, and everyone who wants to feel pride in our downtown. Let’s have a debate on what work can do together, not the same circular argument we’ve been having for years.
For this reason, I’m proposing we reform Lewiston’s General Assistance program to focus the work of able-bodied recipients on a few key projects of essential public value. For example, these could include:
- Weatherization of senior homes. Community Concepts already offers a home weatherization program. Lewiston already has a system for contracting with non-profits who can accept “workfare” participants for General Assistance. Partners like Community Concepts would not only be ensuring public assistance workers are making energy efficiency improvements in people’s homes, they would also ensure that people learn skills that help them land jobs in the future.
- Cooking meals for seniors. Seniors Plus coordinates the Meals on Wheels program for this area, and there are a lot of meals that need to be made to fight food insecurity among the elderly. Familiarization with American food preparation can also help immigrants transition into a growing industry.
- Snow removal for small businesses downtown. Many of the small businesses I’ve talked to wish that the city could do more snow removal on the sidewalks downtown. A project like this could send a clear message to small businesses: we hear you, and we are doing everything we can as a city to make your lives just a little easier.
- Clean up of blighted properties. This public service could actually raise the city some money, used to help pay for at least the administrative cost of the programs. When properties become an eyesore, as often happens in foreclosure for example, we should engage public assistance workers in cleaning up the exterior of the property, and then charge the owner for all costs associated with the clean up. Currently, workfare participants do engage in litter pick up in the public parks and areas around public buildings. But we aren’t going to truly tackle blight until we have a truly citywide plan to do so.
- And more! I’d love to hear from you if you think that there is an important public work to accomplish, that just needs more hands. And if you are an area non-profit willing to structure some jobs along these lines, please let me know! I’m not married to any of these particular ideas—just the fact that we must do something if we are going to move forward.
Furthermore, all of these public work programs can be tailored to accelerate immigrant integration. The Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, did not just plant trees. It also educated participants in everything from the trades to American civics, and was geared especially towards the children of immigrant families. Adults, after all, learn best—not in the classroom—but out in the real world. We could be working with other organizations, like Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, to ensure that immigrants are able to learn English and American civics on the job. This kind of practical knowledge, in addition to accelerating workforce participation, also helps foster an integrated society.
Additionally, many of the most innovative addiction treatment centers also recognize the value of working to create something as a critical piece of recovery. At Grace Street Resource Center, for example, some patients have been working on restoring old motorcycles, or wooden carts from the Pepperrell mill. To truly free itself from addiction, the brain must rewire new pathways of satisfaction, replacing old, self-destructive habits, with the pleasures of creativity and accomplishment. By offering people struggling to escape both poverty and mental health challenges more than income, we are increasing the chances of breaking generational cycles of poverty.
Finally, Lewiston is receiving investment from foundations like John T. Gorman around workforce development training programs. We need to think about resources like these, that non-profit community organizations can raise, as central to overcoming the main challenge of turning make-work programs into the meaningful projects envisioned by the Rebuild Lewiston job corps. The state covers seventy percent of the cost of General Assistance, but does not reimburse for administrative expenses. We should be meeting with local non-profit partners to coordinate existing resources—and raise more—in order to help cover the costs of administering the projects.
There’s plenty of work to be done. Let’s stop arguing and make it happen!