The economy is stagnant. There are no jobs. We must extend unemployment benefits. The minimum wage must be increased to help the poor. Welfare in the form of food stamps, temporary assistance, and medical care must be expanded to help offset these conditions. These are the words that we hear from many politicians. But is this really what is needed?

As we go about our normal routine in the Midcoast what do we observe? Lowe’s is hiring. McDonald’s is hiring. Home Depot is hiring. WalMart is hiring. Maritime Farms is hiring. Grocery stores are hiring. In addition, many other businesses have the Help Wanted signs out. How can this be if so many people need jobs?

The answer we hear is these are all minimum wage jobs and one cannot support a family at such a low wage. These are not all minimum wage jobs, they are entry level jobs. Entry level means that the job seeker does not possess the skill that qualifies for a more advanced position. Entry level also does not mean minimum wage. Some of the "Now Hiring" companies above are paying entry level positions at higher than minimum wage. If there are jobs available above the minimum wage level, why do the Help Wanted signs persist?

In July, Knox County reported an unemployment rate of just 4.3 percent. Some would have us believe this low number indicates a high level of employers competing for the same workers, which would mean difficulty in hiring. However, 4.3 percent unemployment is not a real number. Statewide, almost 35 percent of the workforce currently is not working or seeking a job. One can easily believe that Knox County would also have a comparable percentage of non-workers. (maine.gov/labor/cwri/laus.html). If jobs exist and eligible labor exists, then why do available jobs go unfilled?

A significant part of the answer is that Maine’s welfare system (food stamps, temporary assistance to needy families, and medical care) has become a replacement for a job that requires one to work for food, housing, and medical care. In Knox County, over 25 percent of the entire population is participating in welfare assistance. What are the consequences of accepting various welfare programs as the primary source of income? We have families that have no means of improving their standard of living. Stagnant household income from welfare greatly contributes to a stagnant economy and a stagnant economy perpetuates the cycle. What then should be done to encourage the 35 percent of the workforce to resume searching for a job and become a contributor to economic well being as opposed to a drain on the economy?

We should make very sure that those who are disabled, elderly, too young to provide for themselves, or are simply a true victim of circumstances have a safety net that provides help for them. There are too many others who are quite capable of rejoining the workforce and yet have no incentive to do so. Eligibility requirements must be reviewed and incentive provided to find a job. Job incentive can be in the form of skill training or strictly limiting the time that one is eligible for benefits.

Drug use is a huge part of the “jobs not filled” problem. Most, if not all, of the companies listed above require a drug test for employment. However, welfare benefits are readily available without a drug test. It should be very easy to recognize a pattern here. Drug testing should be a requirement for welfare benefits. If one doubts this is a major problem, then make sure to thoroughly read the next news article about a drug bust. When reading about the items confiscated, there will invariably be a reference to EBT cards among the cash, drugs, and guns.

In the 1990s under President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress (this is called bipartisanship) significant welfare reform was passed that gave incentives for welfare recipients to seek employment. Under this program incredibly significant progress was made to get folks back to work and cease being a welfare statistic. We need similar action in Maine today. In the past three-plus years many reforms have been introduced, only a few have passed, and yet we have realized some benefit. If you do accurate research, you will find that Gov. LePage is extremely passionate about helping the truly needy. He is also passionate about helping to get out of poverty those who are able-bodied and can work, while freeing up funds for those who are truly needy.

Much more work needs to be accomplished in the form of verification of welfare eligibility, job training to improve employment potential, and drug testing to ensure that welfare dollars are not being used to support drug habits. If reforms in these areas continue to be implemented, Maine’s economy will continue to become healthier while Maine’s workforce regains its proud heritage.