New Mainers, religious leaders, community officials and other members of the public overwhelmingly spoke out against proposed changes to the general assistance program in the governor’s state budget. The proposals include the elimination of food and rent support to legal, non-citizens who are not allowed to work while seeking asylum and changes to the formula for reimbursing communities.
The stories of people who were persecuted in their native countries because of their ethnicity, whose lives were in danger because of their political activities and who fled the horrors of civil war were part of the hours-long public hearing before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee.
The Rev. Ruben Ruganza said general assistance allowed him to begin a new life after he escaped the civil war in Congo that had already claimed the lives of many family members. As he was seeking asylum, federal rules barred him from working and he relied on general assistance for food, rent and other necessities.
“I knew that the assistance was just a bridge between the despair and the hope, between the dependency and the self-sufficiency. That is why, after my asylum was granted, I worked hard to find a job,” testified Ruganza, who is now a U.S. citizen and works as a Catholic Charities Maine case manager for survivors of torture and as a pastor in Portland. “I am able now to provide for my family, and even help others. I feel happy that I don’t have to depend on assistance. But I will never forget that I survived because of the support from GA.”
Mouna Ismali faced persecution in Somalia because she belongs to an ethnic minority group. She testified that if general assistance is no longer available, mothers and children will be left homeless and hungry.
“I came to this great nation seeking asylum, which means getting protection and shelter. I believe and still believe, here, in the U.S.A. – I will be treated like a human being who has full rights and dignity,” said Ismali, who now works as a domestic violence advocate at the United Somali Women of Maine. “Today, I am able to support myself and my children. But when I arrived in Lewiston, I received general assistance, which was only meant to cover the minimum of our needs but helped me and my children feel safe recovering from the suffering of our past.”
Other testimony noted that proposed changes to the reimbursement formula would shift costs to communities and their local property taxpayers, undermining the partnership that the state is supposed to have with municipalities.
Sue Charron, Lewiston’s social services director, said the change would hurt municipalities that are service centers and over time increase the local share of general assistance costs.
“Lewiston has long been recognized for operating an effective and cost-efficient program and we oppose using additional local property taxes to support a state mandated program,” she testified.
"The administration is proposing devastating changes without actually understanding needs of the people who need temporary help with life’s basic necessities. What is going to happen to these Mainers when their food and housing assistance is cut off?” asked Rep. Peggy Rotundo, House chair of the budget-writing committee.
Many of the legal asylees who testified are well-educated and represent the state’s economic future. Some are taking jobs that need to be filled, caring for the elderly and individuals with developmental disabilities.
“The governor is creating false choices when he pits one group of vulnerable people against the other. We could take care of all the truly vulnerable in Maine if we weren’t giving tax breaks to the wealthy as the governor has proposed,” said Rotundo. “These changes to general assistance will hurt Maine communities and families, whether we’re talking about our longtime neighbors or more recent arrivals who are trying to rebuild their lives after escaping danger."
“We heard one personal story after another about people and families fighting for their lives – and for their gratitude of a second chance at life and at hope by coming to Maine,” said Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who serves on the budget-writing committee. “It is imperative that legislators craft a budget that is compassionate and moral. To do anything less than that is turn our back on our own.”
Valentino added, “We need to cut through the facts from all the spin. The fact is that GA supports people who are here seeking asylum, legally unable to work. They are as eager as we are to get back to work, to independently support their families and to integrate in to our communities.”