Maine Republicans like to talk about poverty. Gov. LePage brought up welfare reform eight times in a 15-minute speech last week, almost as much as he talked about taxes and far more often than he mentioned education, domestic violence or paying off the hospital debt.
Liberals don’t like to talk about it as much. They will defend programs that are under attack, and they will provide numbers that show the depth of the need and the inadequacy of the effort.
But they rarely bring the subject up themselves, and they are happy to move on to other topics.
On his campaign website, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud doesn’t list welfare or poverty as top issues. (Independent Eliot Cutler talks about “economic security for women and families” in one part of his website and the need for “entitlement reform” in another, covering both bases.)
If you are so inclined, you can see this as another example of the deep divide in our politics, where unresolved disputes over the size and role of government leave no common ground. At the center of the war over poverty is the tension between notions of an individual’s obligation to take care of himself and a community’s responsibility to help those who need it.
Or you could figure that the Republicans think this is a winning issue for them and the more people talk about welfare between now and next Election Day, the better off they’ll be.
That doesn’t just mean Gov. LePage and his campaign, but also almost-daily news releases from the office of House Republican floor leader Ken Fredette, who is publishing the results of constituent surveys that identify “welfare reform” as their top issue. Some of these results have come from Washington and Piscataquis counties, which have among the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the state and the most to lose from cuts to services.
The difference is that when Democrats and Cutler talk about welfare and poverty, they usually talk about money. When Republicans talk about poverty, it’s a moral issue. People will proudly vote against their own interests if they think they are right.
When you listen to the governor and Fredette, there are two kinds of poor people. There are the “truly needy,” like the elderly and disabled, who deserve help. And then there are the “able-bodied” “47 percent” who “don’t want to work.” They become dependent on assistance, and providing benefits for them steals resources from the ones “who really need it” as well as the taxpayer.
It’s a compelling argument that speaks directly to a person’s sense of right and wrong. A lot of Mainers probably think they know someone who has “gamed the system,” and they don’t think that’s fair.
Democrats usually respond with economics. Poverty is defined by how much money you earn. It’s not a moral failing, it’s bad luck.
Since rich people and poor people don’t have the same opportunity to succeed, it’s government’s role to give everyone a chance, whether that means providing free health care, school lunches, rental assistance or, in some cases, cash.
The evidence shows that those programs work: Even the War on Poverty in the late 1960s, which is called a failure by conservatives, cut the poverty rate in half (with the biggest impact among the elderly) and temporarily eliminated hunger as a national problem.
But the rule in politics is, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. By the time the Democrats get their charts out, the conversation is over.
Democrats used to be able to talk about the moral imperative of fighting poverty (check out the YouTube clip of Ted Kennedy unloading on his colleagues in 2007 for failing to raise the minimum wage), but for the most part, they play defense.
About two years ago, when the Occupy movement looked like it was poised to become a left-wing counterpart to the tea party it made an important point by repeating the figure “99 percent.”
It describes a world in which an unemployed homeless mother had something important in common with a self-employed software engineer who had no health insurance and an underwater mortgage. Both were still trying to recover from the financial crisis, and they don’t benefit from even a massive rebound of the stock market. It’s not the poor who are taking more than their share.
That may not be a winning message, but at least it’s one that speaks to people’s sense of justice.
And maybe if Democrats offered a message like that, they might join the conversation about poverty.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: