Turns out LePage’s “47 percent” comment was a put-down of low-income working people

After getting a good deal of criticism for saying that 47% of able-bodied people in Maine don’t work, Gov. LePage has modified his statement.

But his explanation is no better.

Besides saying that child labor laws are “another crime against society [that is] hurting our children,” the governor took a dismissive attitude toward people who work long and hard but don’t make much money so get help with food and medicine.

LePage asked his communications director, Adrienne Bennett, to further explain the 48.4 percent figure he cited. “It’s the percentages of households in Maine that are receiving some sort of welfare assistance, and that would include TANF, SNAP and Medicaid.”

TANF is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and Medicaid is the health insurance program for the poor.

Bennett told reporters that governor is clarifying his earlier comment about the number of Mainers working. And she also acknowledges that many Mainers who qualify for benefits are also working. [Source]

Nearly all of the people included in LePage’s “47 percent” are working people right now.

After all, according to the figure of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, in 2010 just 5% of Maine people received TANF.

That means that 42% of Mainers — a full 89% of the 47% of Mainers LePage wrongly identified as not working — don’t receive cash assistance at all.

Instead, they work but don’t make much money. Thus they get help in order to eat and get health insurance and health care.

LePage doesn’t recognize the big picture.

The U.S. economy has not been working for many Americans, as incomes for the vast majority have stalled. Fewer are able to rise and achieve the American dream.

As I wrote just before LePage’s “47 percent” comments came to light:

According to a report by Democratic staff for the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, taxpayers subsidize companies with many low-paid employees. “A single 300-person Walmart Supercenter store in Wisconsin likely costs taxpayers at least $904,542 per year,” the report reads, for, among other things, workers’ food stamps and health care coverage. While Walmart claims low wages are necessary, competitors pay more and are still highly profitable.

As companies paying basement wages benefit from this federal spending, their hard-working employees may be stigmatized, said to be receiving “welfare,” for which they are eligible because their pay is so low.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this stigmatizing in Maine all too often. Not only does this language come from Gov. LePage, but also from many in his party.

During the debate on Medicaid expansion, many Maine Republicans called the program “welfare,” using a term meant to confuse and shame.

By the way, even the few on TANF have a good deal of recent work experience. As a year long study of TANF families found, “Ninety-seven percent of respondents to the TANF survey report work experience, having worked an average of three jobs in the past five years.”

If we are to address our real — not imagined — problems, policy-makers have to start with the facts.

The governor was not informed.

He may have really meant what he said, that 47 percent of able-bodied people in Maine don’t work.

Either that, or he was badly confused.

And by putting down people who work hard while earning little, the governor misconstrued these families’ real struggles.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.