The Empire Strikes Back: Brenda Harvey’s assault on MHPC’s Welfare Report

The Empire Strikes Back: Brenda Harvey’s assault on MHPC’s Welfare Report

September 17, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - 3 Comments

Even in a small state like this, it is amazing what happens to you when you dare to question state agencies and departments about the work they do. For an example, one need only look at how Brenda Harvey, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has responded to MHPC’s new welfare reform paper Fixing the System: Freeing Maine Families from Welfare Dependency, which was released last week.

The message from Commissioner Harvey? How dare you criticize us!

The commissioner’s assault on us began the initial news articles to report on our new study. In the Portland Press Herald’s first report on the study, for instance, the commissioner disputed a finding that was not even in our study, saying that “the suggestion that our budget has grown exponentially under the Baldacci administration is absolutely incorrect.” As evidence, she submitted that “the general fund, the state of Maine taxpayers’ money, for DHHS over the governor’s eight years has seen an 8.1 percent increase.”

Nowhere in out report, however, do we discuss the general fund budget of the Department of Human Services. The data we use to support our claim that welfare enrollment has exploded under Governor Baldacci comes from DHHS itself, in the form of the monthly reports it issues on welfare caseload levels. That data shows that the total unduplicated number of Mainers receiving benefits from the TANF, Food Stamp and Medicaid program rose from 226,000 in 2003, when Baldacci first came to power, to 388,000 today, an increase of 70 percent.

Harvey goes on to say “this report and the timing of this report (during the gubernatorial campaign) is clearly supporting a political agenda.” However, she offers no evidence–not one shred of evidence–to prove that MHPC has worked in cooperation with any political campaign, which is something the Center does not do. She simply makes an assertion, based on no facts of any kind, as is not challenged on it by reporters.

According to the Press Herald, the commissioner goes on to claim that the MHPC study “inflates enrollment numbers by including MaineCare, which provides state-subsidized health insurance to needy children and the disabled.” DHHS does exactly the same thing, however, when it includes MaineCare enrollment in the unduplicated count of welfare cases contained in its reports (The MaineCare numbers are in the “overflow” reports).  What constitutes “welfare?” According to the DHHS; TANF, Food Stamps, and, yes, the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, are all welfare programs.

Harvey lashed out at MHPC again on Wednesday, suggesting in a Bangor Daily News article that “her biggest concern with the MHPC report was its distortion of statistics to create a misleading story.” Her evidence of this? The MHPC report, she says,  “claimed Maine ranked second among states for households receiving food stamps.”  “Harvey,” the paper reported, “said Maine is actually second in putting food stamps in the hands of eligible people, which is a big difference.”

It may well be that Maine is second in “putting food stamps in the hands of eligible people,” but it is also (and it is concerning that the commissioner doesn’t know this) second in the percent of households receiving food stamps, just as we reported in our paper. Our source? The United States Census Bureau, which issued this report last fall. In it, the Census reports that “among the states with the highest food stamp/SNAP participation were Louisiana (16.2 percent), Maine (13.8 percent), and Kentucky (13.7).” Maine ranks, just as we reported in our paper, second in the nation in the percent of households receiving food stamps. As with her charges against us in the Press Herald, her charges here went unchallenged by the reporter writing the piece.

So we’re distorting the facts?

I am fine with criticism of the paper, and we’ll deal with some of the other criticism we’ve faced in a later blog. I do have some concern, however, that a public official, acting in her official capacity, is doing plenty of distorting of the facts herself, including making baseless accusations and bald-faced misrepresentations of our report.

In so doing, Brenda Harvey has sent a clear message – criticize the Department and the commissioner herself will go on the offensive, up to and including telling outright lies about what your report actually says.

This is what we get from a DHHS commissioner who, according to MaineOpenGov.org,  makes over 170,000 a year in pay and benefits?