September 18, 2013

Greg Kesich: Governor's war of words on welfare is a war on the poor

LePage is trying to make the most of bad associations people have with the word 'welfare.'

'Welfare" is a bad word in politics. It carries negative images of dependent people who won't take responsibility for their own lives, or worse -- of cheats who sign up for government benefits they don't deserve.

It's a bad, bad word, and that's why Republicans are using it every chance they get.

For the last two weeks, the offices of Gov. LePage and House Republican Leader Ken Fredette have been making statements and issuing news releases about the state's social safety net programs and the people they serve, liberally using the "W" word at every opportunity, and it is not a coincidence.

We all know that Gov. LePage is unpopular. He won office with 38 percent of the vote, and every public poll has shown his favorability hovering around that figure ever since. But if there is one group that is even less popular than the governor, it's poor people, and they have no political clout. Over the last two weeks he's been trying to make their unpopularity rub off on something that actually is popular: accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

"Claiming we need to expand welfare is just the Democrats way of trying to buy votes for something they can't deliver," LePage said in a news release Tuesday. "We need to better manage our program, provide care for our neediest residents and keep cracking down on fraud and abuse before adding one more dollar or one more person to the system."

The hits just keep coming. For two weeks running, Le-Page has used his Saturday radio address -- the only time he speaks directly to Maine people -- to the issue of welfare. First, he bragged about thousands of households dropped from the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rolls (and onto municipal General Assistance rolls), then he celebrated an increase in prosecutions of fraud by welfare recipients (from 10 a year before he took office to 45).

At the same time, Fredette's office has been pumping out news releases that support the governor, in one listing too much "welfare" as one of the reasons for the state's aging population, and another encouraging the media to refer to Medicaid as "medical welfare."

The governor kept it going this week, citing Monday a report that he says shows that the Medicaid expansion he vetoed would "add younger men, smokers and heavy drinkers to the welfare program."

The references to cigarettes is clear: Poor people don't take care of themselves, so why should the rest of us care? Like the hints about widespread fraud, it gives people another reason to give up on programs that help people at the bottom of the wage scale, especially as the middle class struggles.

Poverty is even unpopular among the poor. It's humiliating to ask for help. It's degrading to feel that you can't take care of yourself. Our culture values work over everything else. We glorify people who put work before family, or who work themselves into bad health. People who don't have jobs or have jobs but don't earn enough to survive tend to feel worthless. So, contrary to what the governor says, it's politically easy to dump on the poor. Hardly anyone stands up for them, and they can't fight back.

No doubt this steady attack will help motivate the people LePage needs to keep angry if he is going to fight back a Medicaid expansion and win re-election in 2014. It fires up the people who, despite evidence, choose to believe that "welfare" is too easy to get, that it goes to people who don't need it and that the programs are rife with fraud.

They also believe that reliance on the safety net is what's busting the state budget.But it wasn't Medicaid that created the revenue shortfalls of the last five years, it was a decline in income tax collections as the national economy took a historic flop. And it wasn't poor people spending too much on cigarettes that killed the housing market, it was bankers on Wall Street.

And poor people did not benefit from cuts to income and inheritance tax that are building more shortfalls into future budgets and will require more cuts to schools, higher education and "welfare" programs that help people in need.

Playing on stereotypes about welfare fraud and excessive spending might be good politics, but like a lot of what we see from this administration, it's lousy public policy.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

gkesich@pressherald.com

 

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