Like their counterparts in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage has made welfare a pillar of his re-election campaign, the nation’s residents are deeply divided over whether welfare does more harm than good, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

The research puts a national lens on people’s views of welfare and the poor, issues that have fueled the Republican governor’s re-election bid by exploiting deep-seated differences between conservatives and liberals.

Pew’s work reinforces findings about welfare in a recent University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll for the Portland Press Herald, while also capturing public attitudes about why people are poor, who is responsible and the perception of fairness within the economic system. Conservatives, broken into three subcategories by the Pew study, are key to the governor’s bid for a second term. While the study shows that the subgroups are splintered on issues such as immigration, religion and foreign affairs, overwhelming majorities of conservatives believe that welfare for the poor does more harm than good and fosters dependence, and that people are poor because they haven’t tried hard enough to improve their lives.

According to the Pew survey of 10,013 adults nationwide conducted between Jan. 23 and March 16, 50 percent of all respondents said people were poor because of circumstances beyond their control, while 39 percent said it was because of a lack of effort.

The 39 percent is driven by the three conservative subgroups in the Pew survey: “steadfast conservatives” (social conservatives), “business conservatives” and “young outsiders” (conservative views of government, not social issues). Majorities of steadfast conservatives (61 percent), business conservatives (58 percent) and young outsiders (56 percent) said lack of effort is to blame for a person being poor.

Large majorities in the same subgroups also believe that poor people “have it easy.”

no agreement on harm vs. good

Elsewhere on the political spectrum, 86 percent of what Pew called “solid liberals” said poor people have difficult lives.

Among the less politically active, 62 percent of “faith and family left” (racially diverse, religious) believed that the poor have hard lives, as did 71 percent of “hard-pressed skeptics” (financially stressed, resentful of government and business) and 54 percent of the “next generation left” (young, affluent, socially liberal, but wary of costs associated with social programs).

The Pew study also found that 48 percent of residents say welfare does more harm than good, while 47 percent say the opposite. An average of 84 percent of the conservative subgroups said welfare does more harm than good, and 91 percent of solid liberals said the opposite.

A similar question was posed to 620 randomly selected Mainers in the UNH Survey Center poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald. That poll found that 46 percent of respondents said welfare programs do more harm than good, while another 43 percent believe the programs do more good than harm. Seven percent said welfare was neither helpful nor harmful, while another 4 percent said they didn’t know.

Republicans (72 percent) were more likely to say it does more harm than good, compared to 43 percent of independents and 27 percent of Democrats.

Democrats (65 percent) are more likely to say it does more good than harm, compared to 43 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans.

lepage zeal outweighs missteps

In framing welfare as a major campaign issue, Gov. LePage has tapped into the deep well of skepticism about public assistance that characterizes his political base. But LePage’s zeal has also led to missteps, such as a statement early this week in which he described Social Security and Medicare benefits as a form of welfare.

After the Portland Press Herald quoted his statement in a published story, LePage accused the newspaper of twisting his words and interpreting his statements incorrectly, saying he did not regard Social Security as a form of welfare.

Nonetheless, the statement reverberated through the state’s political landscape, fueling sharp criticism from his opponents, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, and igniting pointed debates in social media and other public forums.

In Maine, which is second only to Florida in the percentage of residents over age 65, and where a third of seniors rely exclusively on Social Security for their retirement income, criticism of Social Security could have damaging political consequences.

But any harm from this week’s episode could be outweighed by LePage’s insistent message to a skeptical and ideologically divided public that the welfare system needs to be reformed.

poor and lazy not the same

The complexity of views on welfare was expressed in interviews by several respondents to the UNH/Press Herald poll.

Theodore Lane, 47, of Falmouth, a Republican, said he was torn about welfare programs and recipients.

“I didn’t give a definitive answer (in the poll) on whether welfare does more harm than good because I think it it’s somewhere in the middle,” he said. “I also don’t think that we should be handing it out like candy. I’ve certainly seen some people who don’t need to be on it.”

Kathleen Grieg, 29, a stay-at-home mom from Arundel, said: “I assume that most people on welfare need the help. There are probably some people that work the system, just like anything else.”

Grieg described herself as a “liberal Republican,” especially on social issues. She said her family is poor because her husband is in the military and she has “a ton of student loan debt.”

“We receive MaineCare (Medicaid health coverage), but we’re not on welfare,” she said.

She added: “It doesn’t mean you’re lazy if you’re poor. You work hard and hope that things will change.”

Grieg’s comment that people who work hard have a chance at changing their economic position is also captured in the Pew survey.

Nearly two-thirds of the public, 65 percent, said they believe people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard. The belief was most strongly anchored in the conservative subgroups, as well as two Democrat-leaning subgroups, young liberals and the faith and family left.

Sixty-seven percent of solid liberals and 65 percent of financially pressed skeptics doubted that a willingness to work hard would help the poor get ahead.

The Pew study is the second report in a multi-part series on political polarization. The first report focused on political polarization and its relationship to government, society and people’s personal lives.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler