April 20, 2018
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LePage’s 47% remark shows lack of leadership

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Maine GOP Convention at the Augusta Civic Center on May 6, 2012. “Maine’s welfare program is cannibalizing the rest of state government,” he said. “To all you able-bodied people out there: Get off the couch and get yourself a job.”


Forty-seven percent. Sound familiar?

It’s the exact number that downed the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last year. At a fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., Romney said 47 percent of Americans — the people he hoped to count as his constituents — “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to you-name-it.”

Secretly recorded and published on the website of Mother Jones magazine, the remarks played no small role in sinking Romney’s campaign.

Now, Maine Gov. Paul LePage could relive Romney’s misfortune.

“About 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work,” LePage said last week at a private event in Falmouth hosted by a conservative women’s group. “About 47 percent. It’s really bad.”

Like Romney’s remarks, the remarks of a candid LePage have become public, this time through the BDN blog of Mike Tipping, communications director for the liberal Maine People’s Alliance. LePage is facing re-election, and it’s too early to know if the remark will have the same damaging effect on Maine’s Republican governor as it had on Romney.

At best, LePage’s statement either shows he lives in an alternate reality or has no basis of understanding of the statistics published regularly by his own administration’s Department of Labor. At worst, the statement shows the governor has no problem maliciously bending statistics for political purposes.

What’s clear from LePage’s and Romney’s statements is that they contribute to an image problem for the GOP. They don’t send a message to voters that Republicans actually care about the people they represent or hope to represent — especially if they’re out of work, disabled, or working but dependent on some form of public assistance.

The 47 percent figure doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s just a gross misrepresentation of data used to track Maine’s workforce. The size of Maine’s civilian labor force as a portion of Maine’s population is 53 percent. (That’s 709,025 people out of Maine’s total population, which was 1,329,192 as of the last U.S. Census estimate.) From that number, LePage could have concluded that “47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work.”

The civilian labor force represents those 16 and older not institutionalized who are employed or unemployed and looking for work. In LePage’s calculation, he’s counting those younger than 16 as if they’re supposed to be labor force participants; Maine law requires children to attend school at least until they’re 17. He’s also figuring that Maine seniors who have retired and withdrawn from the labor force should be working or looking for work. He’s dismissing the investment being made by Maine’s young adults enrolled in college and others enrolled in graduate school who aren’t considered part of the labor force because they’re full-time students.

Maine’s labor force participation rate — the percentage of people 16 and older working or looking for work — is actually higher than the nation’s as a whole. In August, Maine’s rate was 65.3 percent, compared with the national rate of 63.2 percent.

In response to BDN questions about the remark, LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett pointed to growth in the state’s welfare rolls over the past decade, and she called out “liberal activists [who] are determined to increase the number of residents who take tax dollars by expanding the size of government and the benefits government workers get and increasing the welfare rolls.”

What’s unfortunate about LePage’s latest misstatement is that deep below the layers of irresponsible deception, the governor has a point — a point worthy of serious discussion. But the governor doesn’t appear capable of carrying out such a discussion without demonizing Maine people.

As the Maine Development Foundation pointed out in a report released last week, Maine residents derive a smaller percentage of their income from work wages and a greater percentage from government benefits than residents of other states.

Too few Maine people are working; those who are working aren’t earning as much as they should; and too few well-paying jobs are available. A leader would be laser-focused on inspiring solutions to Maine’s serious economic challenges rather than demonizing those who need help and those who disagree.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Maine has in LePage.

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