In welfare debate, lawmakers forget Mainers are ridiculously generous

A short article that recently ran in a tiny Portland publication has all the information state lawmakers need to decide the big questions of whether Maine should expand Medicaid and continue to fund general assistance for immigrants seeking asylum here. The news brief, published online in The West End News, makes no mention of Medicaid or asylum-seekers but speaks volumes about the generosity and compassion of Mainers, which is ultimately what those other issues are all about.

Last Sunday night, a fire tore through an old Victorian house on Irving Street, in Portland’s Woodfords neighborhood, that had been converted into apartments. The owner and his tenants escaped without injury but lost their homes and most of their possessions.

Among the displaced was Frank Hopkins, a funk musician known for his long dreads and big heart. As the West End News reported, an impromptu online fundraising effort netted Hopkins and his partner nearly $5,000 within 24 hours. A couple days later, the total was close to $6,500 and still climbing.

“I can’t even begin to describe how overwhelmed and humbled we both are at the sheer volume of love, generosity, and possibility thrown our way today,” Hopkins wrote Monday on Facebook. “It just proves what I have always said, that Portland and Maine in general is the best community on the planet to live and work in.”

Portland’s music community is notoriously (almost ridiculously)  generous. Hardly a month goes by without some benefit for one worthy cause or another. Last month, Mark Curdo, a DJ at rock station WCYY, hosted another 102-hour marathon fundraiser for The Center for Grieving Children. Last summer, 16 rock and metal bands played a four-night series of shows to benefit Mark Belanger, a fellow musician struggling with medical expenses associated with a serious illness.

But such generosity is hardly confined to people who can play an instrument — the vast majority of whom are themselves one mishap away from financial ruin. It’s telling that the success of the fundraiser for Hopkins was reported in the West End News, whose editor and publisher, Ed King, was himself the beneficiary of a grassroots fundraising effort in 2012, when he was diagnosed with cancer.

In its coverage of the Irving Street fire, the Portland Press Herald wrote about another tenant displaced by the blaze, Cody Moores, whose story is even more remarkable.

Moores had been catching up on sleep before his night shift at a Cumberland Farms when the fire broke out. Shoeless and clothed only in his work uniform, Moores sought shelter from the biting cold inside a police cruiser, the daily reported. The officer in the cruiser ran Moores’ name through a criminal database and discovered he had an unpaid traffic fine dating back four years ago. Since his “fixed address” was presently on fire, the cop’s supervisor ordered that Moores be brought to the Cumberland County Jail.

Mercifully, the Portland Police Department’s stunning lack of compassion was countered by the kindness of regular folks. After someone posted his bail, Moores discovered that one of the convenience store’s regular customers had heard about the fire and left an envelope for him containing $100.

“I broke down into tears,” Moores told the reporter.

To quote the great humanist novelist Kurt Vonnegut, “and so it goes.” Day after day, we read on page 1 about lawmakers squabbling over just how poor and dispossessed people must be to qualify for government assistance. Meanwhile, inside the local section, accounts abound of unelected Mainers spontaneously offering sums far in excess of the few bucks of additional taxes such government programs might require in order to help an acquaintance or stranger in need.

The fundamental question underlying the Medicaid and general assistance debates is whether Mainers are willing and able to help the poor and displaced maintain or rebuild their lives. The obvious answer is reported in newspapers every day: yes, we are. The music fan who’ll gladly shell out five bucks at a benefit show for a guitarist with unpaid medical bills will just as gladly part with a fiver to help thousands of other working people afford health care. Whether someone has fled a house on fire or an entire country engulfed by war, Mainers will chip in to help that person get back on their feet.

State lawmakers, from the governor on down, ignore this reality at their peril, because the day is coming when every one of them will be held accountable for their votes on these moral issues. I’m not talking about some vague prophesized Judgment Day. I’m talking about Election Day, and we know exactly when it will arrive: Nov. 4, 2014.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.