Gov. Paul LePage has long cast a wide net for programs that he says fit the definition of welfare. On Wednesday, in a media release written as an alternative take on new personal-income data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, he lumped Social Security and Medicare into that definition.
The federal data released Tuesday put Maine’s personal-income growth at 0.5 percent in the first three months of 2014, which ranked 39th nationally, last in New England and well below the national rate of 0.8 percent. One of the biggest reasons cited for the low ranking was Maine’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
LePage, however, said in the media release that Maine’s net personal earnings increased by 0.8 percent, in line with other New England states and slightly higher than the national rate of net personal earnings, 0.7 percent.
The governor arrived at his number by excluding what the federal bureau calls “personal current transfer receipts” and dividends, interest and rental income.
Personal current transfer receipts include payments from the federal government to states for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits and Medicaid expansion. Maine is one of only four states (Indiana, Tennessee and Wyoming are the others) where transfer receipts declined in the first quarter of this year. Nationally, transfer receipts grew by $41.1 billion.
LePage said he chose not to follow the federal bureau’s definition because it conceals welfare benefits.
“It doesn’t matter what liberals call these payments, it is welfare, pure and simple,” LePage said in the statement. “Liberals from the White House all the way down to Democratic leadership in Augusta believe that redistribution of wealth – taking money from hard-working taxpayers and giving it to a growing number of welfare recipients – is personal income. It’s not. It’s just more welfare expansion. Democrats can obfuscate the numbers any way they want. The fact is that we have created thousands of jobs, more Mainers are working, and their income is going up.”
The LePage administration’s version of the Bureau of Economic Analysis report supports the narrative that Maine’s ability to rebound from the recession will be dictated by private-sector growth and the addition of jobs.
However, while personal current transfer receipts include programs that are commonly considered welfare, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, his inclusion of Social Security and Medicare – entitlements for seniors who have paid into the programs over many years – prompted quick criticism.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, LePage’s Democratic opponent in this year’s race for governor, called LePage’s comments “an insult to Maine seniors.”
“These two programs have helped to provide a secure retirement to thousands upon thousands of hard-working men and women who have earned them one paycheck at a time,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “They deserve much better than to have their monthly Social Security checks called ‘welfare handouts.’ The governor should be embarrassed that he ever suggested such a thing.”
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler was similarly critical.
“I can’t believe he meant to do that because it’s extraordinarily insulting to the thousands of Maine people who worked all their lives and are now retired and trying to make ends meet by relying on Social Security and Medicare, programs to which they – and for that matter, Gov. LePage – are entitled,” Cutler said in an interview. “I understand that we have welfare challenges in Maine and we need reform. I just don’t talk about it in the way he does. I want to talk about how we can fix the problem. He is simply demonizing people and now expanding the definition of welfare beyond any definition I’ve ever observed.”
LePage’s comments also drew a rebuke from AARP Maine, the state’s largest advocacy group for senior citizens.
“AARP Maine is surprised and disappointed that Governor LePage would describe Social Security and Medicare as welfare,” said state director Lori Parham. “Mainers have paid into these vital programs all their working lives. Amid all the uncertainty that Americans face these days, it is a relief to know that Social Security and Medicare will be there for them, providing a solid foundation for retirement.”
Parham said 95 percent of Mainers who are 65 and older receive Social Security, and more than 270,000 Mainers are enrolled in Medicare.
“Calling Social Security and Medicare ‘welfare’ is not only inaccurate, it is offensive to the hundreds of thousands of Mainers who have paid into these programs all their working lives,” she said.
Stuart Dexter, 79, of Orono, a registered Republican who supports LePage, said he doesn’t think Social Security and Medicare are welfare in the traditional sense.
“It’s government money, I guess, but you also pay in, so it’s not really the same,” Dexter said in a phone interview late Wednesday. “The governor says things sometimes I don’t always understand. I’d like to ask him exactly what he meant.”
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an interview that the governor doesn’t necessarily think Social Security and Medicare are welfare, even though they were described that way in Wednesday’s written statement. She did not clarify the distinction and did not respond to calls and emails seeking additional comment.
The federal category of personal current transfer receipts includes Medicaid, which some states expanded last year under the Affordable Care Act. Had Maine expanded its Medicaid program, an estimated $300 million in federal funds would have come to Maine this year. LePage said the state would not be able to afford the cost once the federal government dropped its full reimbursement for expansion and began reducing federal coverage to 90 percent by 2020.
Democrats have been relentless in their criticism of LePage for refusing to expand Medicaid.
“Since January 2014, Maine has turned away more than $160 million in revenue by not expanding Medicaid – economic investment that would have helped create thousands of jobs,” the Maine Democratic Party said in a statement Tuesday. “In total, Maine will lose out on $300 million this year alone, making the economic result of his highly ideological decision clear: Maine ranks dead last among the six New England states when it comes to personal income growth and is the only state not to expand Medicaid in the region.”
Bennett, however, said the governor is more proud of Maine’s growth in net earnings, which were partially attributed to boosts in the construction industry and manufacturing of nondurable goods, with growth of $96 million and $60 million, respectively.