Maine voters are frustrated and skeptical about the state’s public assistance programs, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage has tapped into that anger far more than his rivals, according to a poll by MaineToday Media.

More than half of Maine voters — 56 percent — said they agree that Maine’s poor have become too dependent on government assistance programs. One in five voters said they believe more than half of welfare recipients are “gaming the system.”

The Maine Poll was conducted last Sunday and Monday for MaineToday Media by the Portland research firm Critical Insights.

The frustration with public assistance coincides with record unemployment and rising demand for Maine’s network of safety-net programs, some of which have record enrollments. It also measures Mainers’ attitudes during a contentious gubernatorial election campaign dominated by insecurity about the economy and the state budget.

Democratic Gov. John Baldacci defended the state’s assistance programs, but he said he was not surprised by the anger.

“Unfortunately, in these tough times, in people’s anger about the big investment bankers getting (bailouts), it appears there are some (recipients) who people feel are getting assistance and shouldn’t, and that it’s those who are working hard and playing by the rules who are taking it by the neck,” Baldacci said.

He compared the mood now to the one in the mid-1990s, when he was in Congress voting for welfare reform.

Sixty-three percent of poll respondents said the state does not do enough to encourage and help recipients find work. Twenty percent said they believe the state is doing enough.

Despite the frustration, however, Mainers continue to support the need to have the programs.

Fifty-five percent said they agree that Maine has a responsibility to provide assistance for food and housing when people are in need. Fifteen percent disagreed, either somewhat or completely.

“It is kind of a consistent inconsistency that we see,” said Luisa Deprez, a sociology professor at the University of Southern Maine who has studied Maine assistance programs. “People basically say this is an important role of government” even while they criticize the people who rely on it.

She said the same percentage of people — about 10 percent — cheat any system, whether it’s public assistance, school or business. “What we do is we take the smallest unit and generalize it,” she said.

Deprez also said the poll reflects the struggle faced by many Mainers today and a fear, perhaps subconscious, that they could soon be in need themselves.

“There is a profound sense of vulnerability,” she said. “When the economy is doing well, we have a much more collective spirit.”

Frustration with public assistance programs clearly appears to be fueling or reinforcing support for LePage.

LePage has made welfare reform a central theme of his campaign and pledged to impose a five-year time limit for families receiving cash benefits, among other things. His story of poverty as a child and criticism of the welfare system as “economic slavery” have helped connect with voter sentiment, said Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College.

“I think it’s his personal story, which lends some authenticity to his arguments. It’s the fact that he hasn’t been in Augusta,” Franz said.

When asked which of the three leading candidates for governor would be the most effective at managing the state’s welfare programs, 32 percent of respondents said LePage would be. Twenty-two percent said Democrat Libby Mitchell, and 13 percent said independent Eliot Cutler.

Those voters who said they support LePage were far more likely to find fault with the programs.

Less than half of Mitchell and Cutler supporters agreed that poor Mainers are too dependent on the programs, for example. About three-quarters of LePage supporters — 74 percent — agreed.

“That’s a really high number. That gives you a bit of a sense that LePage’s support is really coming from a reaction to a perception of big government,” Franz said.

“This is also a social issue as well as an economic issue. It’s a little bit easier to beat up on programs that seemingly help people who aren’t helping themselves.”

While the majority of all poll respondents agreed that Maine has a responsibility to provide assistance to people in need, 36 percent of LePage supporters said they agreed. Twenty-eight percent of LePage supporters said they disagreed, completely or somewhat. Thirty-five percent were neutral, and 1 percent did not know.

Sixty-one percent of LePage supporters gave Maine an unfavorable rating for its management of public assistance programs. Twenty-four percent of Mitchell supporters and 45 percent of Cutler supporters rated the management as poor or unfavorable.

Eleven percent of LePage supporters said they believe that more than three-quarters of the people receiving assistance are “gaming the system.” No Mitchell supporters said the number was that high, while 4 percent of Cutler supporters said it was.

Mitchell, a longtime state legislator, is supported by voters who are less critical and skeptical of the programs, the poll confirms. Mitchell has defended the state’s programs on the campaign trail, but also said she wants to help more recipients move from welfare to work.

Nearly three in four Mitchell supporters — 74 percent — agreed that the state has a responsibility to help.

Cutler generally falls in between, with supporters who are somewhat frustrated with the programs. Cutler has issued his own welfare reform plan, which includes a time limit for cash assistance.

Sixty-six percent of Cutler supporters said they agreed that the state has a responsibility to help.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com